Trade rules may prevent municipalities from implementing Walkerton recommendations

May 29, 2002

(OTTAWA) Municipalities may face unexpected barriers in implementing the Walkerton Inquiry recommendations to protect drinking water and agricultural lands due to the federal governments approach to trade negotiations, according to a new study by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The report, From Local to Global: GATS Impacts on Canadian Municipalities, was authored by Michelle Swenarchuk, Counsel and Director of International Programs at CELA. It analyzes the effects of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organization on municipal services, particularly water, sewage, waste management, and transit. It focuses on impacts of the GATS on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) policies regarding environmental services, transportation, and infrastructure.

Swenarchuk warned Canadas municipal politicians gathering this weekend for their annual convention in Hamilton: "Canada made so many commitments to open up services to foreign companies that foreign engineering, construction, waste management and water companies can use the GATS to challenge local (as well as provincial and national) water and land regulations, and public ownership."

In the current round of negotiations, Ottawa is supporting rules that would allow foreign companies to challenge regulations on services as being more burdensome than necessary, she added. This could affect Canadian standards (local, provincial, or national) for:

  • water quality,
  • water testing and monitoring,
  • water and sewage works construction standards,
  • water managers' training requirements,
  • land protection standards for any environmental purpose including for water source protection, as recommended by the Walkerton Inquiry,
  • land use planning to curb urban sprawl, and
  • regulations regarding location of waste dumps.

"Municipal land use planning affects the location and delivery of all other services," said Swenarchuk. "However, if land use controls prevent businesses from locating on a particular piece of land, they may argue that their 'market access' has been denied, contrary to the GATS. This is true even if the purpose of the controls is to protect water sources, to prevent sprawl, to protect environmentally sensitive lands, or to regulate locations of waste dumps."

Transportation policies to encourage public transit rather than car use may also face GATS barriers. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities supports compact land use, subsidies to high-speed rail, tax-exempt transit passes, and increased federal funding to shift people out of cars and into public transit. However, GATS provides opportunities for the auto and truck makers to challenge these policies, according to the study.

Even such basic planning and regulatory tools as environmental assessment for waste management and transportation planning may be targets.

The study includes recommendations for municipalities to reduce these risks, including pressuring the federal government not to support new trade rules that would affect Canadian regulations, and reversing some of the original commitments it made.