First Nations Drinking Water – Speech

Motion: 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.

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.