The Integrated Management of the St. Lawrence River: A Social Experiment in Public Participation

Article excerpt


In Quebec, over the past thirty years, public officials, scientists, and citizens have been brought together to protect and restore the St. Lawrence River. However, the role and influence of each group of these social actors have evolved over rime. New tasks seem to have grown out of the successive policies that guided the management of Quebec's major waterway--legal-bureaucratic, ecosystemic, and, lately, the integrated management of natural resources. An overview of how Quebec society has dealt in the past and copes today with the sustainable management of the St. Lawrence River is very revealing. How a society answers twenty-first century environmental challenges sheds light on ifs capacity to change and consequently to organize new forms of collective action.

In the following pages we will sketch the efforts made to improve the water and environmental quality of the St. Lawrence River starting in 1970s. Firstly, we will survey the public policies that have been developed in relation to the management of the St. Lawrence River. After explaining the first Quebec global program of water decontamination in the 1970s and former attempts at public involvement in St. Lawrence management, we will present key elements of the Quebec Government's latest water policy--Politique nationale de l'eau (2002). This policy is built on a new way of looking at the State's involvement, the role of science, and the participation of riparian communities. Furthermore, this policy banks on the capacity of different social actors to build a consensus over issues concerning the management of the St. Lawrence River. The particular idea of a negotiated social and ecological order is central to Quebec's new water policy and relies optimistically on the capacity of communities--large or small--to construct social agreements acceptable to the various social actors. The authors think that this wager tests very much on conducive social dynamics and on the players' ability to engage anew the game called "integrated management." Secondly we present some of the results of a survey conducted in 2004 by the Chaire d'etudes sur les ecosystemes urbains at UQAM with the collaboration of community spokesmen who are involved in different ways in the protection of the St. Lawrence River. Using these results, we discuss the characteristics of the members of those communities involved in the protection and restoration of the river. How will these particular socio-economic profiles influence the implementation of the recent national water policy? Our discussion will focus on comparing these communities' social characteristics and on the new goals of Quebec's water policy. We examine how riverside communities have predispositions and perhaps limits as to the implementation of a community-based management approach and how they can face the challenges of consensus building, which is at the base of integrated management.

The recent history of the management of the St. Lawrence: from a legal-bureaucratic approach to an integrated approach

In the late 1970s, the management of the St. Lawrence River was mainly regarded as a problem of controlling bacteriological and chemical pollutants. In parallel with the creation of a Ministry of the Environment (1979), a set of laws emphasized the role of the State in environmental matters such as the Loi sur la qualite de l'environnement (LQE, 1978) and the creation of an independent body to watch over environmental impact assessment and public hearings, the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE, 1978). This institutional framework was founded on a legal-bureaucratic approach, strongly centralized and based on the state's capacity to enforce a new set of norms (Lepage 2001, Lepage et al. 2002).

Aside from a legal framework, cement and engineering know-how were the other important ingredients in Quebec's first attempts to protect and clean up the St. Lawrence River, the Programme d'assainissement des eaux du Quebec, in 1978. …