Sault hoping to attract Canada Water Agency headquarters

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By Keith Johnston

Special to Ontario Construction News

It’s an agency that doesn’t yet exist, with a mandate not yet defined, but Sault Ste. Marie is already preparing its bid for the headquarters of the Canada Water Agency (CWA). The city has already conducted four in-person and virtual discussions sessions, including a two-hour online discussion with community members on Sept. 11.

The future agency could offer up to 100 full-time jobs as well as up to $70 million a year in investment, according to John Lee, CEO of Economic Development Regina, a city that published its own proposal for hosting the CWA’s headquarters this past May.

In 2019 the federal government announced its intentions to create an agency that would “work together with the provinces, territories, Indigenous communities, local authorities, scientists and others to find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean and well-managed.”

The federal government conducted consultation sessions earlier this year and allowed a period of public comment, ending in March. Consultations with Indigenous communities remain ongoing and the government has yet to detail a formal bid process for the new agency’s headquarters. The Sault is nevertheless getting prepared.

“We want to make sure that when the process is announced for locating the Canada Water Agency that we’re ready to act so we’re not at that point saying, ‘OK, let’s have a conversation’ and developing a proposal under a tight deadline,” says Elaine Ho-Tassone, PhD, project coordinator of the Lake Huron Collaborative, a partner of the Sault’s CWA Task Force and the leader of the city’s discussion sessions.

Ho-Tassone emphasizes the community’s role in shaping the city’s proposal.

“Typically it’s the decision-makers who are considered end users when you talk about policy,” she says. “Our process kind of flips that, in a way, in that community members are steering the decisions we make in our proposal and we are doing our best to reflect their contributions in a way that is respectful of the diversity that exists in our community.”

The Sault’s task force is putting the city’s diversity at the forefront of its campaign so far. Like Regina, the city is highlighting its partnerships with Indigenous communities, its commitment to the ongoing work of Truth and Reconciliation, its existing research institutions and its desire to see clean economic growth.

The city’s Business Development Manager, Kathleen Heymans, also points to one advantage the Sault may have over Regina.

“We’re located on the border with Michigan so we have experience in collaborative international  relations,” she says. “When it comes to managing freshwater we have a bi-national partnership that manages the St. Mary’s River, which connects Lake Superior to the other Great Lakes.”

Heymans suggests the Sault would also be open to hosting a regional office of the new agency, if not its single national headquarters.

“We know from talking with other stakeholders across Canada in the consultation process that there should be multiple offices as part of the Canada Water Agency,” she says.

The Sault’s plans to attract the future CWA began last September when city Councilman Corey Gardi learned of the new agency from the Speech from the Throne and began enlisting the support of stakeholders and Mayor Christian Provenzano. In July the city’s Economic Development Corporation earmarked $19,000 to fund the discussion sessions, publicity and the final report.

Though the task force hasn’t yet discussed possible sites for the CWA, two citizens have proposed a future headquarters be built on the city’s “Gateway site,” a city-owned downtown property immediately next the the St. Mary’s River that has remained undeveloped for years. Last December, Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services announced that a possible $40 million Indigenous housing hub would not be built on the site, one of many proposed projects to fall through.

Even if the Sault’s bid for the agency should ultimately be unsuccessful, Ho-Tassone suggests the consultation sessions might nevertheless spur local initiatives and shape water policy for years to come.

“We’ve had a few examples of community members connecting with others, like organizations, saying, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you did that,’ or, ‘Hey we wanted to do that too, let’s connect and try to make things happen,” she says. “So even if the Canada Water Agency doesn’t come to the Sault we’re hopeful that some of these discussions catalyze broader connections and broader action at the local level.”

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