Mr. David Wilks (Kootenay—Columbia, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I rise in my place to address this important matter.
Before I go too far with what I have to say, I believe my hon. colleague's motion bears repeating. The hon. member for Toronto Centre moved:
|| That the House call on the Government of Canada to address on an urgent basis the needs of those First Nations communities whose members have no access to clean, running water in their homes; that action to address this disparity begin no later than spring 2012; and that the House further recognize that the absence of this basic requirement represents a continuing affront to our sense of justice and fairness as Canadians.
I thank the hon. member for putting forth this motion and raising this vitally important matter. Our government is strongly committed to the health and safety of all Canadians, whether they live on reserves or off, whether they are aboriginal or not. This remains a priority for all of us in the House.
I also want to inform all hon. members that I support this motion. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Like my hon. friend from Toronto Centre, I, too, believe the government needs to help ensure that all first nations communities have access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water. I, too, believe action should continue to be taken to ensure this kind of access. I, too, believe that the absence of safe, clean and reliable drinking water in first nations communities must be addressed.
Thankfully, our government recognizes the scope of the challenge raised in the motion. In fact, when the government assumed office five years ago, we made access to drinking water in first nations communities a national priority.
Since 2006, our government has made important and strategic infrastructure investments to support first nations in operating their water and waste water systems. We also launched a five-point plan of action for drinking water in first nations communities. In fact, our first budget contained important investments to start delivering concrete results from our plan. Moreover, by March 31, 2010, our government has invested approximately $1.25 billion in first nations water and waste water infrastructure. That investment will total approximately $2.5 billion by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Clearly, this is a government that is taking action, yet the job is not done. We continue to work with willing partners to find and implement concrete solutions to support access to safe drinking water. Our approach continues to be twofold. First, it involves determining with first nations the exact long-term infrastructure developments needed for each first nations community. Second, it involves putting in place an effective regulatory regime based on standards enshrined in law. This regulatory regime is meant to protect the integrity of our current and future infrastructure investments and safeguard access to safe drinking water in first nations communities.
This approach is based on the findings of several key reports. Let me take a few minutes to share some valuable insights from those reports and how these reports are helping our government deliver results and continue to make progress on this important issue.
To determine the exact long-term infrastructure development needed for each first nations community, we carried out a detailed national assessment of existing public and private water and water waste systems operated by first nations communities across the country. This was a comprehensive, independent, third party evaluation.
In fact, we are the first government to ever commission a national assessment of this kind. The size and scope of the assessment was unprecedented. More than 4,000 on-reserve water, waste water, well and septic systems were rated against an extensive set of criteria. The rating is based on the overall system management risk. It looks at whether system design or mechanical features are up to modern standards, for example, or if operators are fully certified.
The report gives us a more complete picture of the challenges and opportunities ahead. The national assessment will help first nations and our government focus efforts on priority areas. It will point to solutions. It will help ensure the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
In addition, our government has developed a response plan to address the findings and recommendations of the national assessment. This response focuses on three key areas of action: first, improving technologies and partnerships to ensure the best use of investments in infrastructure; second, enhancing capacity building and training; and third, putting in place legal, enforceable federal standards and protocols.
The assessment is also the government's direct response to a recent report of the Auditor General, who called on the government to do more to monitor the quality of drinking water on reserves. The Auditor General also called for a regulatory regime for on reserve drinking water and waste water systems. The Office of the Auditor General is not the only institution to make this recommendation.
In 2006, the government put together a panel of experts to identify workable options for a regulatory regime for on-reserve drinking water and waste water systems. The panel gathered testimony from representatives of first nations, provinces and territories, along with various experts in water and engineering. In its report, the panel identified three feasible regulatory options. The most sensible option was federal incorporation by reference of provincial and territorial laws, with adaptations required to meet the needs of first nations communities.
The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development echoed the panel's calls. The commissioner also made a series of recommendations. The most important was the call to create a federally regulatory regime for drinking water on reserve. Indeed, the commissioner stated flatly that until a regulatory regime compatible with that in the provinces was in place, the federal government could not ensure that first nations people living on reserves would have continued access to safe drinking water.
The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was not alone. A 2007 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples came to essentially the same conclusion. After hearing from dozens of witnesses, committee members stated bluntly in the report: “Legislation to regulate water standards on reserve is required. No one, including this committee, argues differently”.
The Senate committee report went on to make another key recommendation. The committee called on the government to undertake a comprehensive consultation process with first nations communities and organizations regarding legislative options, with a view to collaboratively developing such legislation.
That is exactly what we did. In response to this recommendation, the Government of Canada initiated an ongoing consultation process. To be precise, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada published a discussion paper and distributed it to interested parties in advance of a series of focused engagement sessions. Nearly 700 participants, including more than 500 representatives of first nations communities, were given the opportunity to provide their comments and suggestions on the proposal made by the panel experts and endorsed by the government.
This option is to incorporate, by reference, existing provincial and territorial regulations, with adaptation to meet the needs of first nations communities. No other viable option was put forward.
It is that opinion which forms the foundation of Bill S-11, the safe drinking water for first nations act. Why the law? This government understands that standards on their own are not enough. Standards must be supported by the force of law.
As a result of the dissolution of Parliament on March 26, 2011, however, Bill S-11 died in committee. I am pleased to report that the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has been dialoguing with first nations on this issue and will be introducing water regulations which will be designed to give the same protection to first nations that other Canadians have. This type of legislation would make it possible for our government to work with first nations communities to develop enforceable federal regulations, regulations that would address the provisions of safe drinking water, effective treatment of waste water and to protect sources of drinking water in first nations communities. Indeed, our government continues to make access to safe drinking water and effective waste water treatment on reserves a national priority.
As my hon. friend's motion attests, the challenge remains. On Tuesday, Ecojustice, a national charitable organization dedicated to ensuring Canadians can enjoy a healthy environment, publicized its recent report on water quality in Canada. The group's report noted the absence of drinking water legislation for first nations communities. I can assure the people at Ecojustice and all Canadians that we recognize the clear need for rigorous standards to uphold the quality of drinking water in first nations communities.
Our government is committed to introducing a federal law regarding first nations drinking water as soon as possible. I can assure Canadians that we have and continue to make important and strategic investments to improve and maintain water and waste water systems in first nations communities.
Our government is committed to working with willing partners to ensure first nations communities have access to safe drinking water. We will continue to move forward with our first nations and other partners to make waste water and water systems solutions a reality.
Ms. Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, picture a black and white postcard of a toddler. His face is covered by a rash, his eyes are dark without shine, the headline is “Water is a human right” and the bottom caption reads “Do you have running water? I don't...and I live in Canada, I need your help”.
This card is part of a campaign by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to raise awareness about the lack of safe and clean drinking water on many remote first nations reserves.
Now imagine walking down a path lined by trees to the lake on the Garden Hill First Nation. This is the walk a young boy must make every second day, just so he can break a hole in the ice to draw water for his family.
The former Auditor General Sheila Fraser reported that the government had failed time and again to take measures that would improve the quality of life for first nations. The basics of life, such as adequate housing, clean drinking water, child welfare, education, are persistently and dramatically substandard. As a result, Ms. Fraser said, in her parting words to Parliament:
|| I am profoundly disappointed to note...that despite federal action in response to our recommendations over the years, a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted...In a country as rich as Canada, this disparity is unacceptable.
She went on to explain that on first nations reserves conditions are getting worse instead of getting better, and recommended a complete overhaul of federal tools and increased participation of first nations.
Let me provide a specific example. The home of 82-year-old Mr. Taylor, who is a diabetic and requires dialysis every few days, has no bathroom and no running water. The hole in the ice is where he draws his water. The slop pail, a bucket covered by a garbage bag serves as his facilities in his upstairs bedroom. There is an outhouse, but it is inconvenient at minus 40°C.
Not being able to wash can have much more serious health consequences than diarrhea and skin infections. Lack of running water and therefore hand washing, a means of infection control is part of the reason northern Manitoba aboriginal communities were so badly impacted during the H1N1 pandemic.
Over the former Auditor General's 10-year term, her office produced 31 audit reports on aboriginal issues. Last year Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, itself, reported there was little or no progress in the well-being of first nations communities. A gap Ms. Fraser called unacceptable.
She explained that she actually thought it was quite tragic when there is a population in this country that does not have the sword of basic services that Canadians take for granted. Ms. Fraser concluded that too many first nations people still lack clean drinking water.
The federal government has jurisdiction over water on reserves, and provides support and funding to help these communities construct, upgrade and manage on reserve water systems.
Aside from federal policies, administrative guidelines and funding arrangements, there is no regulatory regime covering the quality and safety of drinking water in first nations communities, just as there is no legislation setting out responsibilities for educating children on reserves and no funding is assured.
Bill S-11, an act respecting the safety of drinking water on first nation lands was tabled in Parliament in May 2010, and attempted to address the regulatory void. Bill S-11 would have enabled the federal government to regulate drinking water on reserves, and incorporate and adapt relevant provincial legislation for the needs of first nations communities.
Bill S-11 was met with substantial resistance by first nations groups because it infringed on their jurisdiction. Furthermore, the 2010 Auditor General report warned that it could take years before regulations under Bill S-11 could be developed and fully implemented. The bill died when the federal election was called in the spring of 2011.
Water is essential for life. No living creature can survive without it. Water is a prerequisite for human health and well-being, as well as for the preservation of the environment. Water is the lifeblood of the land and of indigenous peoples who rely upon it.
First nations have, therefore, always viewed water as a sacred trust. From time immemorial, first nations have focused their existence on water; for example, their careful selection of community sites for transportation and harvest from waters. The amount of freshwater on earth is limited and its quality is under constant strain. Preserving the quality of freshwater is important for the drinking water supply, food production and recreational water use. Water quality can be compromised by infectious agents, radiological hazards and toxic chemicals.
Today, nearly two billion people live in water-stressed areas of the world and three billion have no water within a kilometre of their homes. Every eight seconds a child dies of water-borne disease, deaths that could be easily preventable with access to clean, safe water.
The lives of indigenous peoples are intricately tied to the land and the water. As those who live closest to the land and rely most heavily upon it, indigenous peoples strongly feel the effect of water depletion, pollution and other changes. Safe water supplies, hygienic sanitation and good water management are fundamental to global health. Safe water could annually prevent 1.4 million child deaths due to diarrhea, 860,000 child deaths due to malnutrition, 500,000 deaths due to malaria and 280,000 deaths due to drowning. Almost one-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by simply reducing risks of water-borne infectious diseases through increasing access to safe drinking water and improving sanitation, hygiene and water management.
There are many examples of water tragedies in Canada. For example, in 2000, seven people died in the community of Walkerton, Ontario, when their drinking water was contaminated with E. coli. However, it is aboriginal communities that have been disproportionately affected by the water crisis.
Despite repeated government pledges to ensure first nations have access to clean drinking water, their water is still often contaminated. The former auditor general, Sheila Fraser, reported that although the federal government had drafted legislation to ensure water safety, concrete changes were years away.
Most disturbing still is the fact that water quality testing is being undertaken only sporadically and key information is not being shared. More than half of reserves' drinking water systems are at risk. This past summer a national study of nearly 600 drinking water and waste water systems on first nations found that nearly three-quarters were classified at medium or high risk of not meeting safety standards. Specifically, over one-third were classified in the high-risk category.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said that the report was identifying risk and stressed that the findings did not mean water was unfit to drink. I do not want to take a plane that has a high risk of not touching down, just as I do not want to drink water that has a high risk of not meeting safety standards. Thirty per cent of the high risk was from either the source water or the design. The rest was all due to operation, monitoring and reporting. I, therefore, would ask what concrete actions the government has taken to increase training, monitoring and reporting, and what moneys have been made available to pay for these urgent activities.
The world is waking up to the water and sanitation crisis. The lack of access to clean water is one of the greatest human rights violations in the world. We have the millennium development goals, with an aim to reduce, by half by 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. We are in the midst of the United Nations water for life decade, a decade of action to promote efforts to fulfill international commitments made on water and water-related issues by 2015.
When will the government address the water and sanitation crisis in our own country? Specifically, how will the government raise awareness about the water crisis? Action starts with awareness. How will the government undertake meaningful consultation on matters affecting first nations rights with respect to water and waste water? How will the government consult and work with first nations to address the resource gap? Will the government provide adequate financial resources to regions to conduct a thorough impact analysis to determine the financial, policy development and technical needs for each region?
In 2006, the expert panel on safe drinking water for first nations found that the federal government had never provided adequate funding to first nations to ensure that water quality standards on reserves could improve.
I want to make it very clear that our party will not support legislation on safe drinking water that is introduced without an implementation plan for additional resourcing that fully addresses the deficiencies identified in the national assessment of first nations water and waste water systems.
The government must collaborate with first nations and obtain their free, prior and informed consent on the range of regulatory options regarding safe drinking water identified by the expert panel on drinking water for first nations before the reintroduction of legislation.
The United Nations has recognized water and sanitation as a human right. On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly agreed to a resolution declaring human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. The resolution had 122 countries vote in its favour, while 41 countries, including Canada, abstained.
At the very time of the resolution, more than 100 boil water advisories were in effect on reserves and, for another 49 first nations communities, boiling water did not make the water safe enough for consumption. As of July 2011, there were 126 first nations communities across Canada under a drinking water advisory, an increase from 106 communities in 2008. As of October 31, 2011, there were 124 first nations communities across Canada under a drinking water advisory.
The MKO grand chief, David Harper, clearly told a Senate committee in February 2011 that the lack of running water in more than 1,000 homes in northern Manitoba was a violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He explained that his people were living in third world conditions, that families in the Island Lake region of Manitoba had less water every day than people in refugee camps.
People in the Island Lake region survive on just 10 litres per day, usually carried by family members in pails from local water pipes. Additional water comes untreated from lakes and rivers that have tested positive for contamination, including E. coli.
Just this week, Ecojustice confirmed earlier findings, namely, “although billions have been spent and new legislation has been proposed, water quality in first nations communities is still far below that of off reserve communities and it shows few signs of improving”. Specifically, Ecojustice issued a report card on water and its lowest mark was awarded to the federal government, in part for the local improvement in water quality in first nations communities.
Global assessments indicate that the annual cost of not addressing water and sanitation amounts to 1.8 million deaths, health care costs of $7 billion U.S. to health institutions, $340 million U.S. to individual households and an opportunity cost of time lost in illness and care of $63 billion U.S.
For a number of decades, water and sanitation issues were considered synonymous with disease and poverty. Inadequate water supplies, unsafe water resources, poor water management and inequitable access translated into time loss, financial cost, a burden of disease and high health care costs.
Over the past 15 years, this thinking has considerably changed. Water and sanitation issues are now considered an engine for development. Universal access to improved water supply, safe water resources and water resource management all have the potential to contribute to time and financial savings, better health and averted disease costs, and economically productive populations.
As discussed earlier, infectious water-related diseases are a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. It is important to remember that newly recognized pathogens and new strains of established pathogens are being discovered and present additional challenges to both the water and public health sectors. For example, between 1972 and 1999, 35 new agents of disease were discovered and many more have re-emerged. Some of these pathogens may be transmitted by water.
Canada should be aggressively pursuing new ways to protect public health by reducing contaminants in the drinking water for all Canadians by protecting drinking water resources, modernizing the tools available to communities to meet their clean water requirements and providing affordable clean water services in rural communities.
It is time for the Government of Canada to implement a comprehensive national water strategy that upgrades national drinking water standards. In April 2008, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that there were 1,766 boil water advisories currently in place in Canadian municipalities, not including first nations communities.
Of the roughly 90,000 houses on reserves in 2008, approximately 2,100 homes had no water service and 4,700 had no sewage service.
Advisories are intended to be a precautionary measure in the public health tool kit. However, given the fact that some have been in place for at least five years, they are apparently being used as a band-aid solution.
As part of a national strategy for water, the government might consider the urgent need for infrastructure investment, committed federal funding for municipalities and first nations communities to upgrade public water utilities, protection and preservation of water for all forms of life and for future generations, and federal backstop legislation to keep water in its basins and effectively ban bulk water exports.
Clean water is one of life's most basic needs and, therefore, it is unthinkable that communities are told to manage without it. The fact that over 100 first nations communities cannot drink their water is a national disgrace. One chief asked,: “I wonder how different the response would have been if the residents of Toronto were without access to water?”.
I will finish by asking whether hon. members worry about the safety of their drinking water.
It is time that everyone in this chamber joined with first nations in demanding accountability and the right to safe drinking water. Moreover, it is time that the federal government be held accountable for its poor water protection grade.
Ms. Niki Ashton (Churchill, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona.
I stand here proud to represent the people of northern Manitoba, recognizing that we have incredible diversity in our part of the country and, with it, tremendous opportunity as well with the wealth of human resource in our region. We are also one of the youngest regions in Canada and northern Manitoba. Many young people looking ahead at what they hope will be a bright future are part of communities that are looking down the line to see how they can make our part of the country a better place in which to live.
However, along with our tremendous opportunity and that wealth of knowledge and incredible diversity, there are also some extreme challenges that people in northern Manitoba face. Perhaps the most acute of these challenges exists on some of the northern remote first nations that I have the honour to represent.
I would like to point particularly to the reality faced by the Island Lake region's four first nations, St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill, Wasagamack and Red Sucker Lake, communities that are quickly growing. Many of the people who live in these communities are young people looking ahead at a reality that is very different from the reality most Canadians realize. I would argue that reality, as more Canadians have come to know of it today, is one that shocks many people because it is so far from not just the kind of services Canadians have, but the kind of daily actions that we expect any Canadian to go through.
The more than 40% of the 1,880 first nations homes in Canada that still do not have water service are located in these four Island Lake first nations. More than 800 homes in the Island Lake first nations are without water service. As many people in the House know, homes are often overcrowded, leaving multiple generations to live with the social turmoil that is involved with such a reality. What exacerbates that is the fact that so many of these houses do not have running water.
A couple of years ago, it was important for me to stand, along with people in the NDP, and call for urgent action when it came to the H1N1 pandemic that hit the Island Lake first nations disproportionately. Many people wonder why that was the case, but we know that the correlation between influenza, viruses and illnesses of all kinds and no running water is a very strong one. Instead of a long-term plan, the government focused the discussion around hand sanitizers. Even when we asked for a proper response when it came to medical professionals, the government took a long time to be there.
The story of the Island Lake first nations is one that is more extreme than others. The other communities I represent, such as Shamattawa, Hollow Water, Bloodvein and Marcel Colomb, which is working to build its first nation, also face extreme challenges in providing proper water services to their residents.
Simply put, the situation facing so many first nations in northern Manitoba and across Canada is unacceptable. First nations people across Canada face third-world living conditions, conditions that so many of us could not even imagine.
I think of the people I visited in communities across my constituency and communities in Island Lake, where I have the chance to drive on the ice roads to go and visit every year, if not more than once a year. I remember in the last election, following extreme pressure from both the media and the leadership in the first nations in Island Lake, the response given to them by the Ministry of Indian Affairs was a slop pail for every home. In fact, I took a picture with a slop pail and for many people it was a mix of shame, disgust and perhaps awe, trying to understand what the government meant to say on how little it thought of the reality faced by people in Island Lake.
Today, I am pleased to hear the government is supporting the motion in front of us and is committing to action. I am eager to know that this action is not around sending a new round of slop pails or water tubs, but that it looks at long-term investment in these communities.
I am also concerned that the reality today is not just one that has been developed over the last five years. Previous Liberal governments have committed to the unacceptable reality that so many first nations face in northern Manitoba, through the starving of capital funds to first nations due to the 2% cap, and through the refusal to understand that first nations people, under Liberal and current Conservative governments, deserve the dignity that we all deserve as Canadians.
Today, I am proud to stand with my colleagues in the NDP to call for a real action plan that supports the needs of first nations and changes this unacceptable reality that they face. I would like to call for a visionary approach, recognizing that it is not just about clean water, housing and education, but it is about understanding that first nations people in Canada fall well below their non-aboriginal counterparts when it comes to quality of life.
It shows a structural inability of government after government to deal with first nations people on an equal level, to recognize the self-governing capacity of first nations. We must work with them in partnership and recognize that, in the case of Manitoba and first nations across the country, we must respect their treaty rights. In doing so, we commit to changing that reality together. As first nations face third world conditions, it is something that all Canadians face.
We must recognize that making such change brings tremendous opportunity to our country. If first nations young people have proper housing conditions, water conditions and education, they will be able to contribute to Canadian society like anyone else. Our economy will benefit, our social fabric will benefit and we will all benefit.
As the member of Parliament for Churchill, I am asking on behalf of so many first nations and as a proud New Democrat, for us to put an end to the piecemeal approaches or the public relations stunts. We need to work with first nations who have worked very hard, whose leadership and community members and organizations have worked very hard to put the issues on the table and to bring solutions forward. These solutions are based on partnering with other jurisdictions, such as provincial governments and municipal actors, to discuss economic development. At the end of the day, though, the Government of Canada has a fiduciary obligation to first nations. The third world conditions that exist on first nations in Canada today are a shame to the Government of Canada and a shame to all of us.
I am asking today that we put aside the debates about who has done what. We are far off the mark in ensuring that first nations and aboriginal people in Canada have the same dignity that we all deserve, that we share with them in building a vision that looks at equality, fairness, dignity and a new way of thinking of the kind of Canada that we want: a Canada where we enjoy the equality, but recognize the rights of the first peoples of our country. No one in Canada today should live the reality that so many first nations experience and we all, as Canadians, first nations, Métis and Inuit deserve dignity in a Canada of 2011 and moving forward.
Ms. Linda Duncan (Edmonton—Strathcona, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Churchill for sharing her time with me.
I support the motion by the hon. member for Toronto Centre but on condition, as was complied with and consented to, of a very critical amendment to that motion. The critical amendment calls for immediate action on an issue that has gone on far too long in this country. We are happy to support this motion subject to the amendment also passing that immediate, urgent action be taken to address the critical situation with respect to access to drinking water for our first nations people in Canada.
The dire situation faced by far too many aboriginal communities deserved urgent, substantial action and investment in decades past by former Conservative and Liberal governments. Today is an opportunity for every elected member in the House to support the call for immediate action and investment, and I emphasize action and investment.
First nations people grow tired of hearing the same response by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs every day in the House, that the government is spending a lot of money. The government is spending a lot of money on a lot of things, but it is not addressing the urgent needs of first nations women, children, elders and families for potable water for safe washing and drinking. They deserve it now, not next week, not next month, not next year, not in the next decade.
National Chief Shawn Atleo testified on Bill S-11, the proposed safe drinking water act for first nations tabled by the government in the Senate, not in the House, during the last Parliament. That bill, by the way, was roundly spoken against by every first nation organization and leader who testified. We are still waiting for the long-promised revised and improved law to come forward.
Chief Atleo said that federal action to provide safe drinking water services to all first nations is a clear priority for the first nations he represents. It does not yet appear to be a priority for the Conservative government.
I want members to hear me clearly. It is not an adequate response if the measures, including promised but not yet forthcoming laws, taken are not based on direct consultation with first nations and accommodation of their stated needs, interests and recommendations.
Chief Atleo advised that three distinct and inseparable actions must be taken to ensure sustainable supply of safe drinking water to first nations communities. Those include first, clear assurance of the necessary resources to ensure that first nations can comply with any future drinking water standards. Second, a genuine process of consultation with first nations in the development of the rules is needed. Chief Atleo gave examples of where in the past there had been genuine and constructive dialogue on legislation. Regrettably he advised, that has not yet occurred in this matter.
His third action is the recognition that no first nation will agree to any law that abrogates or derogates aboriginal and treaty rights. That was the most strident objection voiced by all first nations witnesses testifying to the law put forward by the government in the last Parliament.
Those views were echoed at other forums sponsored by the federal government. The former Indian affairs department, now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, appointed an expert panel on safe drinking water for first nations. Yet again another review, another study. It reported in 2006. It recommended exactly what Chief Atleo called for.
We need to provide legislative protections for first nations communities in the same way that those protections are accorded to all other communities in this country. How does that happen, because the government in its wisdom, like all past Liberal and Conservative governments, has refused to enact binding, legal, safe drinking water standards?
Therefore, when we deal with first nation peoples who are supposed to be protected by this national government, we see that the government has failed to provide those same standards to first nation peoples.
The expert panel recommended that yes, we need to have legislation provide a useful framework for that law and the number of options, but also said that the government must not move forward until it guarantees the resources and training are in place so those nations can comply with that law.
Then the Senate had yet another review before its aboriginal committee. In 2007, based on the testimony yet again by government and first nation leaders, it made exactly the same recommendations that were put forward by the national chief, and in fact by all the chiefs who had been testifying, and by the INAC expert panel.
Thus the duty to consult and accommodate is very important, and the first nations are calling upon the government to take that seriously. That duty was upheld by the supreme Court of Canada in a very important case brought by a first nation in my province, the Mikisew Cree First Nation. That decision was very clear: before the federal government makes any decision on any policy or law, or on any matter affecting the resources, interests or people of first nations, it has an overriding constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and respond.
It is not good enough that the government keeps reminding first nations how much money it spent, or to be patient because safe drinking water laws are coming soon. It needs to genuinely commit the budget now.
In a moment, I will reveal what the budget number is. How do I know the number? It is because the government commissioned an engineering group to do the work of identifying that exact figure.
If the first nations suffering under continuing boiled water advisories cannot hold out hope that the government is going to respond to all of those previous reviews, they might heed the advice of the former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser. In her final audit report this year, she identified first nation drinking water as among the critical outstanding matters warranting priority federal action. She admitted that the government had taken some action, but decried the lack of any real progress in improving the lives and well-being of people living on reserves. She has said that despite her office producing over the past decade “...no fewer than 31 audit reports on aboriginal issues....too many First Nations people still lack what most other Canadians take for granted”.
She called for major structural reforms, including a legislated base for programs, including safe drinking water, and “commensurate statutory funding”. Those are very important words, “commensurate statutory funding”.
What she pointed out with examples from education was that in the case of first nation children, they do not have a statutory right to ensure that governments issue money on a regular basis to meet their educational needs or, in this case, their safe drinking water needs. No. First of all, the first nation has to agree that it will build a treatment plant or build the piping or fix the piping or do some training. Then, on that condition, the government will eventually sign a contribution agreement and eventually the first nation will receive some money, but only for a year. Then it starts all over again.
She also called for support for local service delivery by first nations. Again, the Auditor General was listening to first nations. Will the government listen to the first nations?
Let us put a reality fix on the scale of the problem. As I mentioned, the engineering report commissioned by the government, issued this year, identified a cost of an additional $3.5 billion simply to bring first nation water supplies up to standards legally required for other Canadian communities. It may be noted that for Alberta alone, the cost is $162 million.
I want to add that it is not enough just to deal with the end of the pipe. As members may be aware, or those who were in the last Parliament or have taken the time to take a look at what occurred in the last Parliament, a number of us issued a report based on a review of the impact of the oil sands on water. In that report, it was very clear that the federal government was dropping its responsibilities on the protection of source water.
That is absolutely critical. The best way to reduce the costs for first nations of treating their water is to ensure that the source water is clean.
A few days ago, I mentioned the high levels of carbon in the source water of the Fort McKay community. If they had a safer source of water, they could reduce the harm to their community by not having to add more chlorine to their water.
In closing, first nations deserve a law to ensure their right to safe drinking water, they deserve the resources to move on that immediately, they deserve respect for their aboriginal and treaty rights, and they deserve real consultation in this matter.
Ms. Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, GP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor. I want to take this moment to thank him, a member of another party, for quite magnanimously and generously making it possible for the Green Party to enter into the debate on this important opposition day motion.
We are concerned, as are all parties in the House, about the ongoing scandal of the failure of the federal government to ensure our fiduciary, legal and constitutionally required obligation to provide safe, clean drinking water to every person living within a first nations community. This is so fundamental, so constitutionally enshrined and so clearly something that we all share on all sides of the House, it is not only our legal obligation but also our moral obligation.
It is an ongoing scandal that disturbs the conscience of all Canadians when they realize that third world drinking water conditions exist right across this great and wealthy country, but in first nations communities almost exclusively.
I want to try to address the problem and propose some solutions as we discuss this issue in as non-partisan a fashion as possible
We recognize that the statistics on this issue are shameful. Only 27% of first nations enjoy drinking water that could be considered safe; 39% of drinking water supplies are judged to be of high risk; and 34% are judged to be of moderate risk. The first nations themselves have questioned these statistics collected by our Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which says these are collected in a bit of an arbitrary fashion but are the statistics we have.
In one month alone, in May of this year, there were 223 advisories and warnings in first nations communities, a statistic discovered by Canadian Press through access to information.
We recognize that the statistics, while dreadful, continue in the face of various governments. There is no question that previous Liberal governments and this Conservative government have made announcements, provided funding, and have said they would deal with this issue. Yet it remains an ongoing scandal.
I remember how shocked I was when a friend of mine who worked in a first nations community, Burnt Church, New Brunswick, described to me how the local hospital had to have water trucked in. That is how deeply we are failing first nations communities, that even a local hospital had to rely on trucking in bottled water because safe drinking water supplies were just not available.
What are the issues here? Some of them were discussed in a brief exchange between the hon. parliamentary secretary and the member for Edmonton—Strathcona. The member for Edmonton—Strathcona does have a long history on this issue, having authored a book on first nations governance around water issues.
Clearly we have to start finding a solution with fundamental respect for the rights, jurisdiction and responsibilities of first nations themselves. In the words of Grand Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, this was where the previous government legislation, which started in the Senate, Bill S-11, was so fatally flawed. It did not start with engagement that respected the rights and jurisdiction of first nations. We have to start with that.
The government has said in the past that it would enter into consultations with first nations to develop a water governance model that would work. To date we know there have been 13 engagement sessions that took place in 2009. That does not constitute the kind of full engagement with first nations governments that is required to really understand how we develop shared jurisdiction in this area, with a water governance model that will actually work. How do we develop that? It starts with talking to first nations about a shared model.
Once we respect first nations rights and jurisdiction, we then have to look at what they are saying about the problem. Grand Chief Shawn Atleo has said that there is a large capacity gap. In other words, we could impose regulations on first nations communities, but we have not addressed important holistic issues, respecting traditional knowledge, for example, attempting to support first nations in their communities through respect and government to government negotiations in order to create first nations water governance models that would actually work and are supported by enhanced capacity.
It is not all pipes that we need. It is more than that. It has to be holistic. We need to address the requirements in first nations communities.
Yes, we do need more money. That is going to be essential to providing any framework that works. We need water treatment systems. We need to develop those systems that make sense in the context of first nations communities, often in remote areas.
We need to stop polluting first nations water. This is pretty fundamental, but if someone lives downstream from a large pulp and paper mill that is not watching its effluent, if someone is downstream from the Athabasca tar sands, downstream from areas of pollution, or in the case of first nations communities where cranes lived all around and were surrounded by greater mercury contamination from the large hydro plants, there are going to be specific water pollution problems that are not simply bacteriological. It will not simply be dealt with through dealing with contamination in a bacteriological sense.
This holistic view starts with protecting water at source, ensuring there is capacity in first nations communities and ensuring we are respecting the rights and jurisdictions of first nations communities.
I am not trying to cast blame in any way here at all across party lines. It is important that on this issue, for once, we act in a non-partisan fashion that recognizes that, in a serial sense, there has been a serial failure here that is not something we can peg on one government or another.
It is something that speaks to who we are as a nation, that we come together, that we respect the primary responsibility that this is a governance issue where we are on somebody else's territory. In a very real sense, anywhere in Canada we are on somebody else's territory. However, specifically in first nations communities, those rights and responsibilities of jurisdiction cannot be abridged, cannot be ignored, cannot be conveniently treated as non-issues because we have decided we are going to put a particular type of water plant in and we are going to tell people how it is going to work.
We have had enough failures, as we know, with high tech water plants across Canada in non-indigenous communities that we should not be arrogant about this. The great failure of the Halifax water treatment plant comes to mind, after billions were spent. We need to approach this issue as a shared partnership to ensure safe drinking water for every first nations community.
Going forward from that, this day of debate and discussion in the House of Commons is an excellent start. We certainly have been admonished. We have been admonished by Sheila Fraser, as Auditor General, in her final statement to us as parliamentarians, that after years of filing reports pointing out the failure to deliver clean drinking water to first nations communities, she wonders if we can ever make any progress at all.
This is our moment. Let us not lose it. We are coming together. We agree on something. Let us work together on it.
My last thought goes to the question of drinking water in Canada overall. Now that we are addressing first nations drinking water in a non-partisan fashion across all parties in the House of Commons, can we not look at the larger question of how we regulate drinking water in general?
I may not be right about this, I just want to share this. I'm thinking out loud. Is there something wrong with the overarching framework of drinking water in Canada that we do not regulate the safety of drinking water in Canada? We regulate food safety. There have been various attempts in the Senate over the years to put forward a bill that would reclassify water as food, so that we would then regulate the safety of water.
We do not regulate the safety of water. We have federal government guidelines from Health Canada and when they are not being observed, there is no enforcement mechanism. Generally, enforcement for safe drinking water in Canada has been a process that involves media stories, headlines, and trying to get attention. Unless it is a desperate situation like Walkerton, sometimes drinking water standards, even in a non-first nations context, are not getting adequate attention.
Perhaps it is time that we address the need for a safe drinking water act that will reach all Canadian taps, all Canadian faucets, all Canadian homes. In doing that we will have created a federal framework within which the rights and responsibilities, and the appropriate jurisdictions of first nations can be respected as we augment the failures by providing significant resources to providing safe drinking water everywhere in this country, but particularly in that area of exclusive federal responsibility which we share with first nations on first nations reserves across Canada.
I am thankful for having the opportunity to speak to this. I look forward to questions.
Mr. Scott Simms (Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my hon. colleague from St. Paul's who has provided a great deal of leadership. I would also like to thank and congratulate the preceding speaker from Saanich—Gulf Islands, the leader of the Green Party, who did a fantastic job on her speech. It was a pleasure sharing the time with her.
I was just reading this morning about boil water advisories, which has been an ongoing issue in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are approximately 200 of them right now, which is a substantial amount for an island province and of course the mainland portion of Labrador. That is a quite a number for a province with a little bit over 500,00 people.
That gives us an idea of the situation we have and what we are dealing with, especially in some of the more remote and rural areas, and those that are of first nations are extremely vulnerable when it comes to this.
We have signed on to many agreements and we have had many aspirations that tell us that we should look at this as a human right for individuals who want clean drinking water and who have a right to receive it. Certainly, our government has the responsibility to live up to these standards, to meet with the right people and the community groups that are on the forefront of this issue.
As my hon. colleague just pointed out, regarding the particular groups in this particular situation, we get the information from them, we go through the consultation processes, and then in the end we seem to fail to connect that bridge between the action items we decide we want to do. I know some cynics would say that usually happens in government. In many cases it happens.
Unfortunately, in this case and in many others, action does not happen soon enough, and because it does not happen soon enough the most vulnerable are the first ones to receive the worst part of this, which is not receiving clean drinking water.
I want to congratulate the member for Toronto Centre, the leader of our party for bringing this motion forward, as well as the member for St. Paul's.
I would like to get into this particular document first. I find that it is one that is pertinent and that creates an international standard that we have to live up to. I have read this before and I find that it is actually a fantastic document to read from. I will cite from article 21:
|| Indigenous peoples have the right, without discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, including, inter alia, in the areas of education, employment, vocational training and retraining, housing, sanitation, health and social security.
|| States shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their economic and social conditions. Particular attention shall be paid to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.
Therein lies the responsibility of governance, not just this particular government but other governments. I know we have been lost in debate about whether this is an aspirational thing to do, or is something that we must do in the immediate term. Anything we sign on to has to have the right policies in place in order to turn these into action items and to make these goals into realities, and to reduce the number of communities across this country that do not need to boil their water just to receive the basic service of clean water, like many nations do.
We have experience in the past little while where we have signed on to a few treaties, and yet the action that follows has become futile at best. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down into a lot of the machinations of bureaucracy and the machinations of how we debate in this House, and how we are confrontational in the way we handle politics here in the House of Commons, which is extremely disappointing.
My colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands touched on this just a short time ago, when asking about congeniality and how we could come to a common agreement. Nobody in this House would ever say, “Let's hold on. Let's just not do this right now. Let's put this down the list when it comes to providing clean drinking water”. Nobody would say that.
However, for some reason we start to debate the details of this and the narrative gets lost, the narrative being providing clean drinking water. Pardon the vernacular, but sometimes we need to collectively give our heads a shake in order to realize what the end result of this would be.
My niece, who is from Newfoundland and Labrador, is a school teacher who taught in Attawapiskat. When I went there to see her, I was struck by a community that I thought was in need of so many of the basic services, such as housing, water, health care and education. Even though it was considered a remote community and although over time the conditions had become worse, I wondered how it had arrived at that point.
At what point should we say that the standards by which these people are living are not measuring up to the international agreements that we signed? How does that happen in a country like Canada when we have become the leader of the world, when we have become the country that everybody wants to become? Many international leaders have said that we need to bring Canada to the rest of the world. The problem with bringing Canada to the rest of the world is that it would bring this as well. It would bring forward the fact that we are making some mistakes.
We need to aspire to all the goals that are outlined within this particular agreement, but more important, we need to turn these into action.
I want to talk about some of the back and forth that has been happening over the last little while.
The federal government is responsible for supplying first nations on reserve communities with the tools and resources that they require, all the services that I listed prior on some of the first nations communities that I visited. The duty is divided among three ministries. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development provides funding to first nations for infrastructure repair and managed water services in their communities. Health Canada monitors water quality management on reserves. Environment Canada manages sourced water protection.
In many cases, I have heard that the rules and regulations have taken effect in many communities, not just aboriginal communities but non-aboriginal communities as well. This is one of the big reasons that, in places like Newfoundland and Labrador, there are over 200 boil water advisories in the smallest of the communities. The reason is that local governance has become extremely frustrated in dealing with that higher end of government. This argument is not new. This argument pertains to many departments.
As was pointed out earlier, we need to engage in discussions with the people at the very base of any particular community that sees itself under a boil water advisory. I have some of them in my riding. They are non-aboriginal. The problem is such that the infrastructure crumbles beneath them. For aboriginal communities, like Attawapiskat, it was even much worse. It has so much to overcome. People who consider themselves an expert on infrastructure and providing clean water must look at this and ask where we start. However, we need to start somewhere.
I am glad we are raising this issue because maybe today's debate will create a spark by which we will be able to make that mechanism a far easier way to help the most vulnerable.
I want to again thank my colleagues for doing this today because I have heard some really great stuff concerning not just clean water, but the basic human rights of communities and individuals. Canada is the greatest country for communities because we band together and we band together to make better communities for our children. What we have here is a great debate.
I would encourage us to move from this point, as my friend from Saanich—Gulf Islands pointed out, to a point of positive action to ensure that the basic human right of clean water that is outlined in international agreements comes to fruition in a great country like Canada.