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Watershed awareness

Power to protect

Since the Canadian Constitution divides legislative power over water resources among federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations groups and governments, no one governing body provides an overarching framework for protecting Canada’s water resources. Depending on the body of water in question or the nature of water use, provincial or federal legislation may apply.

In general, the long-term and day-to-day management of water resources are the responsibility of provincial governments. In the North, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada manages water resources in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. And, as of 2003, responsibility for water resource management in the Yukon was transferred from the federal government to the territory.

Provincial powers over water include:

  • Flow regulation
  • Authorization of water-use development
  • Water supply
  • Pollution control
  • Thermal and hydroelectric power development

Meanwhile, the federal government has jurisdiction over:

  • Fisheries
  • Navigation
  • Federal lands (e.g., First Nations south of 60 degrees latitude, national parks, national defence)
  • International relations, including responsibilities related to the management of boundary waters shared with the United States and relations with the International Joint Commission

There are also regulations in certain federal water-related legislation that protect Canada’s waterways. For example, the federal Fisheries Act is a strong environmental law to protect water ecosystems.

All provinces have laws to manage and protect their lakes and rivers — for example, Manitoba’s Water Protection Act, Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Water Resources Act.

Agreements between different governments are also employed to protect water resources. The Canadian Heritage Rivers System was created in 1984 to conserve and protect the best examples of Canada’s large, free-flowing rivers and river systems. It was established by co-operative agreement between Canada’s provinces and territories and the federal government, rather than by statute. In 1986, the French River in Ontario became the first river to be designated a Heritage River, and 40 rivers have since been so designated.

Governments in Canada are increasingly moving toward integrated ecosystem and watershed management approaches that ascribe to the principles of sustainability. At least 115 decentralized governance arrangements at the provincial or territorial level are now following this approach.

Furthermore, environmental NGOs (e.g., Ecojustice and the David Suzuki Foundation) and community-level organizations (e.g., streamkeepers and waterkeepers) have adopted the role of watershed watchdogs on behalf of the public and the environment. While government monitoring of water quality has declined from the monitoring of 4,000 sites across Canada to 2,500 sites in 2008, community-based water monitoring has increased in regions such as Cape Breton.

There are now many more stakeholders in water management, both inside and outside government and increasingly at the community or local level. It is estimated that thousands of stewardship activities are currently going on in some aspect of water or resource management, many of which are volunteer-based.


This piece features a series of interactive maps and graphs depicting the quality and quantity of Canada’s fresh water, both locally and on an international scale.


On the next page:

Rural watershed issues

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Quiz :

When did the Crown and the United States enter into the Boundary Waters Treaty?