Works on navigable waters in Canada

The public right to travel on navigable waters is protected by law in Canada. This applies to all waters that the public may use for travel or transport, whether or not the water is on the list of scheduled waters of the About the Canadian Navigable Waters Act (CNWA).

If you’re planning a work (project) that affects navigation, you may need to submit an application for an approval to the Navigation Protection Program (NPP). The exception is when your project is considered a “minor work” and meets criteria set in the Minor Works Order.

You can also search for ongoing projects by looking at the public registry.

On this page

About navigable waters

A navigable water is one that the public has a right to use for travel or transport. It can include a canal or any other body of water created or altered by construction. In deciding whether to call a water “navigable”, proponents can use the Project Review Tool available on the External Submission Site. This tool asks questions such as:

  • Is it used for transport or travel for commercial or recreational purposes?
  • Is it used as a means of transport or travel by Indigenous peoples using their constitutional rights?
  • Is it likely to be used in the future for transport or travel?
  • Was it used in the past for transport or travel?
  • Is there public access by land or water?
  • Are there 2 or more waterfront owners?
  • Is the Crown (federal, provincial or territorial government) the only waterfront owner?

A scheduled navigable water is one that’s on the schedule under the Act. You may also submit a request to NPP to add a waterway to the schedule.

A non-scheduled water isn’t listed on the Act’s schedule but may be considered navigable. Navigable waters that are not listed on the schedule continue to be protected under the Act.

About works

A work is anything, temporary or permanent, made by humans, that:

  • is in, on, over, under, through or across any navigable water in Canada; and/or
  • includes the dumping of fill into, dredging or removing of materials from the bed of a navigable water.

Minor works

The Minor Works Order allows for works to be built if they meet the criteria for the applicable class of works, as well as specific terms and conditions for construction.

Works meeting the assessment criteria of the Minor Works Order are classed as minor works under the Canadian Navigable Waters Act (CNWA) and may proceed without an application for approval as long as they comply with the legal requirements.

The classes of work established in the Minor Works Order are:

  • Erosion-Protection Works
  • Docks and Boathouses
  • Boat Ramps, Slipways and Launch Ramps
  • Aerial Cables for Power and Telecommunication
  • Submarine Cables for Power and Telecommunication
  • Pipelines Buried under the Bed of a Navigable Water
  • Pipelines and Power or Communication Cables Attached to Existing Works
  • Works Within A Boomed-Off Area Upstream or Downstream Of An Existing Work For Water Control
  • Outfalls and Water Intakes
  • Dredging
  • Mooring Systems

It is the responsibility of the owner of a work to assess the work to ensure that it meets the criteria established for its class. It is also the responsibility of the owner to ensure that all legal requirements set out in the order are met.

Major works

An owner must always apply for an approval for a major work constructed, placed, altered, rebuilt, removed or decommissioned in any navigable water if the work interferes with navigation. The application for approval is required whether or not the water is on the Act’s scheduled waters.

The classes of major works likely to interfere with navigation are:

  • Aquaculture Facilities
  • Bridges
  • Causeways
  • Water Control Structures
  • Ferry Cables

The Minister may attach any term or condition to an approval of a work including one that requires the owner to:

  • maintain the water level or water flow necessary for navigation purposes in a navigable water; or
  • give security in the form of a letter of credit, guarantee, suretyship or indemnity bond or insurance or in any other form that is satisfactory to the Minister.

Consult the Major Works Order for the criteria for major works.

Prohibited works and Order in Council exemptions

The law prohibits some activities on navigable waters including:

  • throwing or depositing of material, such as mine tailings, in a navigable water or water that flows into a navigable water; and
  • activities that lower the water level of a waterway so that navigation is impossible.

If you can prove that a prohibited work is in the public interest, you may request an Order in Council exemption. The order removes the usual restrictions. The process requires extensive public consultation, government and agency input, and an environmental assessment as well as Indigenous peoples of Canada consultations.

For more information on an Order in Council exemption, please refer to the “What might be the outcome” section of the Guide to the Navigation Protection Program’s Application and Review Requirements.

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