Working together to protect the St. Lawrence: 30 years of collaboration between the governments of Canada and Quebec

In Quebec, more than 80% of the population lives along the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries. This river linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean is more than 1,000 kilometres long. The St. Lawrence’s rich diversity of natural habitats makes it one of the most important elements of North America’s natural heritage.

In 1988, the governments of Quebec and Canada signed the Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence, also known as the St. Lawrence Action Plan (SLAP), and other stakeholders joined forces in this initiative to protect and enhance the St. Lawrence and its riches. These collaborative efforts have been under way for 30 years now.

Overview of the five SLAP phases

Over the years, the governments have renewed their strategy for action through collaboration agreements several times to ensure the continuing effectiveness of SLAP.

Phase I (1988 to 1993)

Significant progress was made during the first phase of SLAP. For example, more than 5,000 hectares of natural habitats were afforded protection, a number of threatened or vulnerable species were identified, the 50 most polluting industrial plants in Quebec reduced their discharges of toxic effluents by 74%, environmental technologies were developed and a substantial amount of data was collected on the St. Lawrence. In addition, during this five-year phase, citizen committees were established, conferences were held and many media reports were disseminated. All of these measures helped to raise awareness among Quebecers of the importance of preserving the health of the St. Lawrence.

Phase II (1993 to 1998)

During Phase II, some 2,000 additional hectares of natural habitats were protected, a 90% reduction in discharges of toxic effluents was achieved, the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park was created, a number of studies were conducted, a biodiversity portrait of the St. Lawrence was prepared, a protection plan for the Beluga was developed, agricultural pollution was characterized and the impact of poor water quality on human health was evaluated. Funding programs to promote community involvement and community-based action were also put in place.

Phase III (1998 to 2003)

Phase III of SLAP was marked by the increased participation of riverside communities in conservation efforts devoted to the St. Lawrence. From an economic standpoint, agricultural producers modified their practices to bring them into line with different regulatory requirements, in particular the Agricultural Operations Regulation. Efforts were made to reduce pollution associated with commercial shipping and recreational boating. Industries developed more energy efficient and less polluting technologies.

In addition, a number of parks, ecological reserves and wildlife refuges were created or expanded. Measures were implemented to protect nearly 105,000 hectares of natural habitat with the participation of non-governmental organizations. An integrated dredging and sediment management plan and a sustainable navigation strategy were developed.

Phase IV (2005 to 2010)

In this phase, the initiatives implemented earlier in SLAP were continued. Scientists and other experts continued their knowledge acquisition efforts and worked on solutions for cleaning up the St. Lawrence and protecting its ecosystems. This phase was marked by a focus on sustainable development, which paved the way for integrated management of the St. Lawrence. Under the approach, all stakeholders, including decision makers, users of the St. Lawrence and residents, are called on to work together to make the best decisions related to the St. Lawrence, for the benefit of present and future generations.

In this phase, a voluntary speed reduction program for vessels travelling between Sorel and Varennes was launched to reduce the effect of wave action from passing ships on riverbank erosion. Eco-marinas, an environmental certification program, was initiated to improve environmental management of marinas. Projects aimed at improving access to the St. Lawrence and is riches were implemented, along with projects to improve the health of habitats in agricultural areas. 

Phase V

We are currently in Phase V of SLAP; it began in 2011 and will run until 2026. The present agreement will be in effect for 15 years, a longer period than in the previous phases. The continuing participation and commitment of all stakeholders is essential to safeguard the St. Lawrence River.

Between 2011 and 2016, more than 40 projects related to the St. Lawrence were carried out by experts from both levels of government. These projects were aimed at conserving biodiversity, improving water quality and ensuring sustainable use of the St. Lawrence. Various programs were created to monitor the state of the St. Lawrence and prepare portraits of the river, as well as develop tools to better understand the St. Lawrence and the impact of human activities on its state of health. Various organizations continued their efforts devoted to integrated resource management, and riverside communities managed about 60 projects which brought about improvements in a number of areas connected with the St. Lawrence.

Thanks to this collaborative work, remarkable progress has been made toward protecting the health of the St. Lawrence and its riparian areas. However, these efforts must be maintained. Although the state of the St. Lawrence has improved over the last 30 years, knowledge acquired under SLAP has shown the fragile balance of the river’s ecosystem. Scientists, policy makers, economic actors and citizens must work together to preserve its health. SLAP is a tool that can help us meet this major challenge.