Canadian Senate hearings on Navigable Waters

I’ve been following the senate hearings on changes to Canada’s Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). Under the proposed changes, which are part of a massive omnibus bill currently making its way through parliament, there will be a substantive rewriting of the law with significant changes both to the scope of water protection (only 62 rivers and 97 lakes out of ALL of Canada’s freshwater are covered in the new law) and in the type of protection afforded to water.

I was very pleased to learn that I could stream parts of the democratic process to my laptop earlier this week, and so now have the testimony of both November 20 and November 22, which can be viewed here and here. These two hearings of the Environment Committee have a total of five witnesses. On November 20, Tony Maas from the WWF and the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW Canada), Rachel Forbes from West Coast Environmental Law and David Labistour who is the CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada’s largest outdoor retailer). On November 22 there was testimony from the Assembly of First Nations and from Mark Mattson of the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers.

If only to appreciate the degree to which calls for clarity and the technicalities of both the law and political processes affect decisions, the sessions are worth viewing. For instance, the questions to witnesses often ask for specific examples that will back up their testimony. And then the conversation turns to examining the examples provided, with the strange inference supplied that if that example doesn’t demonstrate, in toto, the superiority of the witnesses proposed amendment, then the new bill should be passed as is. Of course the Canadian senate isn’t known for its activism; and with this sort of public reasoning it is not hard to see how procedural rightness overshadows consideration of substantive goods.

As a result, this emphasis on specific instances really changes both the epistemic targets and the ontological grounds for public reasoning. That is, rather than reasoning about a broad and diverse set of instances (which science typically treats statistically) or about ecological systems as objects that have sets of relationships that do not reduce to specific, closed examples, the questioners treat the witnesses as though what is at stake is a specific reading of the new law. But clearly that is not the only thing at stake. So in the Canadian imagination where the Senate is the “sober second thought” to parliament, democracy has some further pangs to go through if it is to fit itself to reality rather than vice-versa.

Nevertheless, my hat is off to the witnesses themselves, who took the time and spent the energy to present compelling grounds for amendments to the new legislation on topics of science, the right of the public to information, ecology, First Nations rights, recreational economics and environmental assessment.

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