Two of Canada's three seats on a key bilateral institution have been allowed to go vacant, raising questions about Ottawa's commitment to the joint body that oversees waters shared with the United States.
Joe Comuzzi, a former Liberal and Conservative MP from Thunder Bay, is now Canada's only representative on the International Joint Commission and serves as the country section chair.
The commission, which was established by the U.S. and Canadian governments more than a century ago to prevent and manage water-related disputes, is responsible for the Great Lakes and other shared bodies of water.
A spokesman for the commission's Ottawa office confirmed this week that no new appointments have been made since former commissioner Pierre Trépanier left the bilateral group more than a year ago. A third commissioner, Lyall Knott, completed his term last Friday.
Lana Pollack, who chairs the U.S. side of the commission, said it is useful to have a balance between Canadian and U.S. representatives. "It's good when we have three people," she told The Globe and Mail. "We're looking forward to the appointments, let's put it that way."
John Jackson, program director of the advocacy group Great Lakes United, called the lack of Canadian representation "scandalous" and said it means Ottawa is not holding up its side of a crucial bilateral commitment.
"It is unforgivable when you think of how important it is to protect the environment of the Great Lakes and the rest of the border. The IJC has a really important role to play," said Mr. Jackson, whose organization has offices in both Canada and the United States.
The commission released a report last week recommending that the U.S. and Canadian governments consider building an engineered structure such as a gate or speed bumps in the St. Clair River in an effort to raise the water level gradually in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The report came after the release of a five-year scientific study of water levels throughout the Great Lakes system and 13 public consultations with people in the region.
Some mayors and property owners on Georgian Bay say they hope a new structure in the St. Clair can provide long-term relief for persistently low water levels that have closed waterways and made it difficult or impossible to reach docks and marinas by boat.
Gail Krantzberg, a former director of the International Joint Commission's Great Lakes Regional Office, said she does not understand why the spots have not been filled when the issues the commission deals with are crucial to many Canadians. "Perhaps it's simply not a priority for [the government] to populate it. It's very discouraging."
Prof. Krantzberg, who teaches at McMaster University, said the loss of Canadian commissioners has been noticed by those who watch the organization's work. While commissioners are expected to act impartially, she said U.S. and Canadian representatives come to the job from different political and cultural backgrounds, which is why it is important to have both countries equally represented.
"Certainly there's been frustration and concern expressed" about the lack of Canadian appointments, said John Gannon, a former scientist with the commission who has retired. "I hear more from my Canadian colleagues, but I think it's a shared concern."
Canada has typically appointed at least one commissioner from Quebec, but has not had representation from that province since Mr. Trépanier's departure last year. A U.S. source familiar with the commission's work said the lack of francophone representation over the past year has made public consultations on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River significantly more difficult.
The commission reports to the State Department in the United States and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canada. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office referred questions on the appointments to the department, which said in an e-mail that the government is committed to protecting boundary waters. "We are aware of the current vacancies among Canadian commissioners to the International Joint Commission," Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman John Babcock wrote. "We are hopeful that appointments will be made shortly."
A federal website listing government appointments notes that the three commissioners are appointed at the Prime Minister's discretion and are free to select a chair from among themselves.