Ottawa says it’s making Canada’s largest-ever investment in freshwater protection

The federal government says it’s making Canada’s biggest-ever investment to protect the country’s freshwater sources, including the Great Lakes.

Commitments announced by the government during US President Joe Biden’s visit and in the latest budget bring the federal government’s total investment to $750 million, Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeau said.

“[It brings] we are very close to our commitment to invest $1 billion in this mandate. So we’re not there yet,” he told CBC News.

During Biden’s visit, the government announced that it would spend $420 million on cleaning and restoring the Great Lakes. That amount is part of a total of $750 million.

During the 2021 election campaign, the Liberals pledged to spend more than $1 billion over ten years to protect and restore freshwater bodies, including rivers, great lakes and the Great Lakes.

Last week’s budget earmarked $650 million over ten years for the Fraser River, Mackenzie River, Lake Winnipeg, Lakes of the Woods, Lake Simcoe, St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.

The money is intended to support monitoring, assessment and remediation efforts, prevent the release of harmful chemicals and reduce the frequency of algal blooms.

Canada’s freshwater sources face ongoing threats from plastic and toxic chemical pollution, agricultural fertilizer runoff from algal blooms, and invasive species. On the prairies, they are threatened by shrinking glaciers and drought.

These hazards affect plant and aquatic life and the communities that rely on these water bodies for drinking water and recreation. Canada has 20 percent of the planet’s fresh water reserves. Guilbeau said Canada has not always lived up to its responsibility.

And he acknowledges that Canada must match U.S. investments in protecting and restoring freshwater sources.

“[The Americans] have made very significant investments in the Great Lakes over the past few years,” Guilbeau said. “We were committed to investing more.”

Environment and Climate Change Minister Stephen Guilbeau addresses the media at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, September 21, 2022.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Federal Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeau speaks to the media at the United Nations on September 21, 2022 in New York. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Michelle Woodhouse, Environmental Defence’s water program manager, agreed that Canada should match US efforts to protect the Great Lakes.

“It’s fair to say we’ve fallen behind,” he said, “It’s been chronic underfunding for decades.”

The United States has invested $3.8 billion in Great Lakes restoration efforts since 2010, according to environmental groups. By comparison, the Canadian government has committed $44.84 million to the Great Lakes Conservation Initiative. Even on a per capita basis, Canada lags behind.

Environmental groups and US mayors welcomed Canada’s funding commitment despite the gap.

“Representing the international border community on the Great Lakes, I am thrilled to see such collaboration and coordination between the US and Canadian governments to improve the health of the Great Lakes,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) manages the nine watersheds that run through the Greater Toronto Area.

In 1987, Toronto’s waterfront was named one of 42 Areas of Concern by the International Joint Commission. The IJC is a bi-national commission created by Canada and the United States to regulate transboundary projects that affect water bodies along the border. The IJC defines “areas of concern” as places within the Great Lakes that have experienced major environmental damage.

TRCA has been working to clean up Lake Ontario ever since. While it has made progress, it still has to occasionally close beaches and deal with concerns about algae blooms and wildlife habitat. The TRCA also maintains restrictions on fish consumption.

TRCA senior manager Namrata Shrestha said the federal government’s investment is welcome.

“We have a lot of problems with our Great Lake system, especially Lake Ontario,” Shrestha said. “There are a lot of issues with water quality and the consequences of that, not just on the ecosystem itself, but the cascading effect of what that means for us as a community.”

Map of Canadian and US areas of concern.
Map of Canadian and US Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Toronto’s waterfront is one of 12 of Canada’s 14 areas of concern that Environment and Climate Change Canada has pledged to clean up by 2030. The department says it will focus on the following contaminated or degraded areas over the next decade:

  • Thunder Bay
  • Nipigon Bay
  • Peninsula port
  • Saint Mary’s River
  • St. Clair River
  • Detroit River
  • Niagara River
  • Hamilton Harbour
  • Toronto and region
  • Bay of Quinte
  • St. Lawrence River

Three areas of concern in Canada have already been restored and delisted: Collingwood Harbour, Severn Sound and Wheatley Harbour.

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