Statement made on 22 June 2009 by Senator Nick Sibbeston
Hon. Nick G. Sibbeston:
Honourable senators, last month at their annual general meeting in Inuvik, the Northwest Territories Association of Municipalities passed a resolution dealing with the protection of N.W.T. water resources from the development of oil sands in Alberta. The Dene Nation, at its leadership meeting in February, passed a similar resolution.
The resolution expresses a widely held belief that the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada have not managed the Alberta oil sands in a sustainable way that protects the environment of downstream communities. There are concerns about both the quantity and quality of the water flowing into the Mackenzie River Basin from the Athabasca River.
Although the Mackenzie River Basin Board was established in 1997 as a result of a transboundary agreement between Canada, the three provinces and two territories within the watershed, this body seldom meets and is widely regarded as toothless. Nevertheless, the existence of this board recognizes one undeniable fact: Watersheds do not respect territorial, provincial or even national boundaries.
Although the Mackenzie River lies entirely in Canada, like most rivers, its water flows through several jurisdictions. Many of our other great rivers also cross into the United States.
Water is already a contentious issue in many parts of the world and promises to become even more so in the face of global economic development and climate change. Demand for water will rise even as changing weather patterns make some areas dryer and others wetter.
Although few people envision real conflicts with our southern neighbour, there can be no doubt that water will be a source of friction in our relationship. Lessons we learn from protecting the Mackenzie may prove valuable in future discussions with the United States.
Canada is singularly blessed with supplies of fresh water, but we are entering a period of great uncertainty. Uncertainty demands that we exercise caution in protecting this vital resource. We need to find mechanisms that will help us to protect the ecological integrity of river basins, both national and international, while still allowing development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
Honourable senators, they say that no cloud is without a silver lining. The current recession has caused hardship for many people. However, it may also give us an opportunity to rethink the pace of development in the oil sands and to create better ways to protect our most precious natural resource — water.