National drinking water bill introduced for First Nations

OTTAWA – A "long overdue" bill to develop the first-ever federal regulations for safe drinking water and waste water in First Nations communities across Canada was introduced in Parliament Wednesday by the Conservative government.

The regulations – similar to those currently in place in all provinces and territories – would help ensure that already-existing protocols in First Nations communities are followed and enforced, said Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

"It’s something that’s been recommended repeatedly, that we need legislative standards for water so that First Nations can have the same expectations as any other Canadian," said Strahl, adding the communities "should have water that’s fit to drink, a management system that looks after it, and legislative standards."

The proposed legislation – the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act – follows recommendations made by the Office of the Auditor General, the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, and the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.

Without legislation, current protocols are "very hit and miss," said Strahl, who introduced the bill in the Senate alongside Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

"As we’ve seen in other water-quality issues across the country, it’s not just a matter of infrastructure – it’s also a matter of maintenance, who’s looking after it, how the reports are done, how you’re assured that the tests are communicated to the community . . . who’s running it, who’s training the operators," said Strahl. "All those things are equally important and this bill will deal with all of that."

Regulation might differ somewhat between First Nations communities but would mirror provincial standards, he added, calling Bill S-11 "long overdue."

Strahl also re-announced on Wednesday the two-year extension of the First Nations Water and Waste water Action Plan set out in the 2010 budget, which provides an additional $330 million in funding for safe drinking water, water and waste water facilities, and a national assessment of water systems.

Angus Toulouse, the Ontario Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he recognizes there is regulatory gap in the current framework but worries that communities will not have the capacity to deal with the demands once legislation is in place.

"This particular bill is going to introduce measures that are going to be very stringent, and again punitive, and legally demanding of First Nation leadership," said Toulouse, adding that the act doesn’t tackle "any of the root problems" that cause poor drinking water.

"And actually, with this legislation, we’re not going to get the results that we all want," he said.

Toulouse noted that as of last March, nearly 20 per cent of First Nations communities across the country – or 114 out of some 630 – were under drinking-water advisories, with one in 30 lacking running hot or cold water, or flush toilets.

According to the federal government, there are still about 49 drinking-water systems in First Nations communities which are considered "high risk," but that number is down from 193 systems in 2006. "High risk" means there are several deficiencies within a water system, and there are no – or almost no – barriers left in place to help mitigate against any problems which may arise with the water.

"We’ve done a pretty fair job, but overall, these water issues and management will never go away. It’s not like we can improve it and say ‘Good. Enough.’ It will always require, in our opinion, a legislative mandate," said Strahl.

If passed, the legislation would automatically apply to all First Nation communities – which refers to status and non-status Indians living on reserves – except for self-governing First Nations that operate under their own comprehensive agreements with the government.

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