Canadians wrestle over sharing their water

For Canadians, the thought of exporting their crystalline waters verges on heresy.

When Ian MacLaren wants students to drink in the essence of being Canadian, the Canadian studies professor lines them up in sturdy canoes and sends them down an Alberta river. Before long, paddling along in silence, most of them understand. "Water is a key to who we are," says Mr. MacLaren.

This country's vast network of lakes and rivers - where 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply flows - has long inspired reverence in its people. When Canadians want solace, refuge, or rejuvenation, many make pilgrimages to cottages, cabins, or beaches next to shimmering waters. The federal government has a link on its website called "Water and the Canadian Identity."

Perhaps that's why it's considered a form of heresy for Canadians to suggest exporting their fresh water in bulk to less-blessed countries. A Newfoundland business group's recent campaign to export the precious stuff has been received as warmly as an Arctic blast, blowing gales of opposition over the nation.

In a scheme backed by Premier Roger Grimes, the McCurdy Group wants to pump as much as 13 billion gallons of pristine water every year from Gisborne Lake, in the province's southeast corner. Tanker trucks and ships would haul the water to the United States and abroad.

The group claims the plan could bring the province as much as C$20 million (US$13 million) in royalties, enough to offer free tuition to Newfoundland's university students.

To the Council of Canadians, a nationalist lobby group, this suggestion is "an unacceptable outrage." Alexa McDonough, a federal party leader, is demanding action to protect "something as fundamentally important to Canadians as water." Another politician warns Newfoundland that it is "opening the floodgates to the international trade of water."

Opponents argue that if one province allows bulk water exports, the federal government will be hard pressed to stop foreign countries from pumping other lakes in Canada. The nation's hallowed waters would become a commodity, subject to international trade rules.

Water is "part of Canada's identity," said a horrified Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians. "To see our water sucked up by the Americans would be too much."

Two years ago, a similar outcry ensued when a small Ontario firm won a permit to send 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia in ships. A national newspaper's editorial noted Canadians' "wierdness about water."

"The fuss about Canadian water exports is truly strange," the editorial said. "Canada has lots and lots of water.... It literally falls from the sky." To which readers responded "ferociously," a columnist later wrote. "Few editorials have ever elicited such a response ... and none a response so uniform in disagreement." Eventually, the government rescinded the permit.

After a similar response to a California firm's wish to export British Columbia water, a lawyer involved with that case could only say: "Whenever the subject of the export of water arises in Canada, we go a little goofy."

"So many Canadians have a relationship with a river, lake or ocean, and that's a powerful influence," says David Goa, a folklife expert at the Provincial Museum of Alberta. Furthermore, few issues today are black and white, he says. "But every once in a while an issue comes along like water, which seems so simple, and the side of righteousness seems so obvious."

Environmentalists question how renewable Canada's water truly is. Canada may have 20 percent of the world's fresh water, but more than half of that is nonrenewable, a legacy of the melting Pleistocene ice sheets.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jean Chretien seems to be softening on the subject. He told Liberal Party caucus members recently he planned to set up a House of Commons committee to explore whether Canada should export water.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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