Federal government tables report on Ottawa River Watershed: what does it mean and what’s next?

The Federal Government report on the Ottawa River Watershed was tabled on June 19th 2019. Here is what we are taking away from it, and what we are doing going forward.

On June 19, 2019, the federal government tabled a report in the House of Commons entitled An examination of governance, existing data, potential indicators and values in the Ottawa River watershed. It comes after an extensive consultation process by ECCC, over two years in the making, and we encourage watershed stakeholders to read it. Fair warning: it is 267 pages long. Below is what we are taking away from this report and the process that led to it.

Why did the federal government do this?

The government (ECCC) carried out this study as a result of a private members’ motion tabled in 2017, which mandated a “detailed study with regard to the creation of an Ottawa River Watershed Council, which would bring a comprehensive, inclusive, co-management approach to the Ottawa River Watershed, in order to foster ecological integrity, sustainable economic opportunities, and quality of life”. A large part of this study involved consulting a wide range of watershed stakeholders, including Ottawa Riverkeeper.

What did watershed stakeholders say about the idea of a Watershed Council?

(The following text is taken directly from the report). Nearly all views expressed by stakeholders and individuals supported increased collaboration in the Ottawa River watershed. Many stated that a current lack of collaboration was one of the greatest challenges facing the watershed, particularly due its interprovincial nature. Many respondents expressed interest in establishing a Council to: coordinate watershed management across borders; develop common goals and objectives; support Integrated Watershed Management approaches; address issues; and set priorities for action. The need to convene diverse interest groups from across the watershed to share information and help identify concerns was widely recognized as a gap missing from current management practices. The majority of those supporting improved collaboration believed that a coordinating body was an effective strategy. The Algonquins of Ontario, the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, Mohawk community of Kanesatake, and Métis Nation of Ontario were supportive of the formation of a new watershed-based collaborative body, on the condition that their rights and related interests would be strongly reflected within its mandate, structure and membership.

What Ottawa Riverkeeper is doing

The report serves to further confirm the broad support and strategic need for a Watershed Council. Are we surprised by this outcome? Not in the least. For years, Ottawa Riverkeeper has been listening to stakeholders throughout the watershed and hearing the same thing. On many occasions, we convened all levels of government, including First Nations, industry, academia, and community groups. In 2015, hundreds of stakeholders including the Environment Ministers of Ontario and Québec unanimously agreed to the Gatineau Declaration, which called for forums for “integrating and sharing information, research and knowledge about the health of the Ottawa River Watershed, the challenges we face, and potential solutions or best management practices relevant to protecting freshwater ecosystems”. Building on this momentum, we authored an extensive Discussion Paper further elaborating on the need for a Watershed Council and outlining the pathway for implementing one. And since then, we’ve continued the dialogue with First Nations and watershed stakeholders, making significant progress towards a common understanding of indicators to measure the health of the Ottawa River watershed.

Widespread and historic flooding throughout the watershed in 2017 and 2019 reinforces the need for improved coordination. Given the changes we are experiencing with the climate, and the need to protect our communities and the complex ecological systems that sustain us, we must work together with all levels of government, including First Nations, in our watershed. We can do better, and for this level of collaboration a Watershed Council would be essential.

A missed opportunity

What the report does not contain explicitly, despite strong stakeholder support, is an endorsement from the federal government that a Watershed Council should be formally implemented and that the government itself would support. In our opinion, this is a missed opportunity for federal leadership in the nationally-significant Ottawa River watershed. To be clear, we are not suggesting that the federal government lead a Watershed Council. Simply that it acknowledge its role as one of the key bodies involved in its co-management, and join the dialogue so many have been calling for. After all, the federal government recognizes the importance of integrated watershed management and has made this one of Canada’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Of course, our watershed has many agencies involved in its management, resulting in fragmented jurisdictional responsibilities. For a Council to be effective, it also needs buy-in from the Ontario and Québec governments. Unfortunately, that support is noticeably absent from the ECCC report.

A path forward

One thing is for sure: the future of our communities is at stake as is our access to swimmable, drinkable, and fishable waters. We won’t allow this report to collect dust and be forgotten by its authors. Going forward:

  • We are asking ECCC Minister Catherine McKenna to engage with her provincial counterparts in Québec and Ontario to pursue the dialogue on integrated watershed management for the Ottawa River.
  • We will continue to engage with the above governments, in addition to First Nation governments as well as the many stakeholders who are already supportive of an Ottawa River Watershed Council. We will soon be launching an online Info-Hub (see beta version here) to facilitate information sharing and to highlight progress made.
  • To ensure science-based decision-making, we are launching a major project to fill data gaps and gain a better understanding of our watershed’s health. This project will directly involve indigenous communities as well as engage citizen scientists.

The ECCC report concludes that “it is evident that the Ottawa River watershed is valued by many, and the natural, economic, cultural, and heritage values associated with the watershed are highly interconnected”. We couldn’t agree more. Time to work together to safeguard those values for generations to come.