Report card on federal responsibilities for Lake Winnipeg


LWF and the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective (LWIC) have released a report card which grades the federal government’s performance on Lake Winnipeg.

The Year Three report card reviews progress made on recommendations presented in Five Things the Federal Government Must Do for Lake Winnipeg, a discussion paper released by LWF and LWIC in December 2020.

With just two years remaining in the five-year timeline to complete the actions proposed in the original paper, we highlight the urgent next steps the federal government must take to meet its own objectives to protect and restore Lake Winnipeg’s water quality and ecosystem health, and to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Grading the government's performance

The federal government is moving forward on some key priorities, falling concerningly behind on others – and failing outright in setting regulatory limits to manage excess phosphorus from non-compliant wastewater treatment plants, such as Winnipeg’s North End Water Pollution Control Centre (NEWPCC).

In 2020, we recommended that Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) update the federal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations to set limits for phosphorus in sewage effluent. Last year, ECCC proposed amendments to these regulations – yet all these amendments were designed to reduce the regulatory burden for wastewater treatment plant operators. No limits for phosphorus were set – even as phosphorus is recognized as one of the top three water pollutants in Canada. We assigned a grade of F to the federal government’s performance on this action, and recommended that ECCC immediately enforce existing freshwater protections in the Fisheries Act in response to the City of Winnipeg’s massive spill of raw sewage into the Red River in February 2024. (Read more on p. 6 of the report card.)

Targeting federal Lake Winnipeg investments to phosphorus hotspots

In 2020, we recommended that the federal government target freshwater funding to persistent phosphorus hotspots, where phosphorus reduction is required to improve Lake Winnipeg’s water quality. The federal government took important steps towards this responsibility in 2023 by allocating $650 million to a 10-year national Freshwater Action Plan – though it is not yet known how much of this funding is designated for Lake Winnipeg.

ECCC also recognizes the benefits of a funding program that targets phosphorus hotspots and has committed to implementing such an approach by March 31, 2027. We assigned a grade of B to the government’s progress while reiterating that ECCC must make use of empirical phosphorus data from the Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network to guide funding decisions and evaluate program outcomes. (Read more on p. 8 of the report card.)

Including Indigenous rightsholders and knowledge carriers in Lake Winnipeg co-governance

While the federal government has moved forward with both the UNDRIP Implementation Act (2021) and the UNDRIP Action Plan (2023), neither of these federal policies were co-developed with Indigenous peoples. We therefore assigned a grade of C. (Read more on p. 10 of the report card.)

Indigenous rights, recognized by UNDRIP and affirmed by the government of Canada, necessitate an approach based on meaningful partnerships without predetermined outcomes. Instead, federal departments continue to rely on consultation processes, which are limited in scope to the priorities of the crown. Tellingly, one of the only items in the 2023 UNDRIP Action Plan related to water is a promise from the Liberal Party’s 2019 election platform – the creation of the Canada Water Agency (CWA). Framing the CWA as a priority of Indigenous peoples is disingenuous: its scope and mandate remain vague and offer no assurances of UNDRIP implementation. We recommend that the minister of Environment and Climate Change direct CWA resources to the establishment of an Indigenous-led water agency. The federal government must provide long-term, stable financial support to increase capacity for Indigenous knowledge generation, dissemination and inclusion in public policy processes.

Water protection isn’t easy – it’s important

When LWF and LWIC first published Five Things the Federal Government Must Do for Lake Winnipeg, we knew our recommendations would not be simple or easy, but they were intentionally built on existing laws, established agreements, robust evidence and past commitments.

We hoped the federal government would provide the leadership necessary to reverse troubling changes occurring in our waters – changes that are the result of decades of shortsighted decisions, minimal environmental enforcement and disregard for Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Federal freshwater policy must rely on evidence found in science and Indigenous knowledge. It must be willing to enforce existing laws and hold offenders to account. And it should not mistake collaboration as a process of building political support but rather, recognize it as a commitment to work together with respect, accountability and clear purpose.

Federal action now is vital to ensure that future generations can wake up to waters full of life and spirit.