House of Commons Hansard #48 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was water.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

Kenora
Ontario

Conservative

Greg Rickford Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the hon. member's speech today and the opportunity to work with her in committee on some important things.

The member is co-author of a book entitled, A Legal Guide to Aboriginal Drinking Water, which I have had a chance to review and concur with on many fronts. In this book, the member and her co-author assert that legally binding standards for safe drinking water for first nations communities are long overdue. She alludes to a piece of legislation that died on the order paper.

I wonder if the member is prepared to work with the government and first nations to fill the legal gap that she outlined in her book and whether she believes that those legally binding standards are a matter of the highest importance in this process.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am glad that the hon. parliamentary secretary is reading the book. I was happy to give him a copy.

Indeed, I am looking forward to continuing to work with first nations and the government. That is why I ran for election originally and was elected in 2008. I have been waiting for the opportunity to work hand in glove with the government.

Unfortunately, the government has chosen, in its wisdom, to table the bill in the Senate, and so I have not been afforded that opportunity as yet. I am looking forward to the opportunity of recommending witnesses to come forward. I would bring to the member's attention that I appreciate the invitation from 47 chiefs in Alberta to meet with them urgently to review their concerns with the legislation the government previously tabled.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:45 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

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.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Cheryl Gallant Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, ON

Mr. Speaker, on the topic of consultation that the member opposite referred to, in the summer of 2006 the expert panel held a series of public hearings for first nations across Canada, hearing from over 110 presenters and receiving more than two dozen written submissions.

In April 2007 a joint workshop was held between federal officials and the Assembly of First Nations technical water expert group to engage technical experts on the government's proposed option, incorporation by reference, and allow the experts to identify issues and challenges that would need to be resolved in order to effectively implement this option.

From May to July 2008, INAC, Health Canada and Environment Canada met with regional first nations organizations, the Assembly of First Nations and provincial territorial officials to prepare for future engagement sessions on a legislative framework. First nations expressed support for continued discussions on the development of legislation and regulations.

From February through March of 2009 a series of engagement sessions were held with first nations communities, regional first nations organizations and provincial-territorial officials, and these sessions offered a forum for participants to suggest solutions and recommendations on how to best address the existing regulatory gap for drinking water and waste water in first nations communities.

In 2009-10 the federal government met with first nations chiefs and first nations organizers to discuss specific regional issues raised during the engagement sessions held from February to March 2009. During these sessions, key elements of the draft legislation were shared in deck format.

In the same spirit of co-operation that was afforded the member to share her time during this debate, would she be willing to co-operate with the government in helping--

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

The hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is not an easy matter to conduct the kind of consultations that meet the standards of Supreme Court of Canada decisions, such as in Delgamuukw, Weyerhaeuser, Haida Gwaii First Nation, and challenges to consultations.

We can invite first nations to provide briefs and hold meetings, but if it has not started with a fundamental respect, and some of these meetings may have been well-intentioned and met the standard, the reality of consultations with first nations is that they are government to government. They are not merely a matter of taking briefs on board as if we are dealing with NGOs. The consultation mechanism must start with a sign-off with the Assembly of First Nations as the body that represents the chiefs and councils of first nations across Canada, and must be engaged in a respectful government to government relationship. That will bring better results.

In answer to the member's question, yes, I am more than happy to do anything I can to help. I think we should work together.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, the member who just spoke talked of fundamental respect. I would like to make an aside, a little comment meant for everyone here. Nearly 150 years ago, two founding peoples decided to create this country. A third people was deliberately left out of the discussion, left out of the creation of this country. And this colonialism still exists. We, the political representatives of the two founding peoples, are going to decide what right the third people has to water and what the quality of that water will be.

These discussions will go on and on as long as we do not accept the fundamental fact that the Indian Act is colonial and outdated. These discussions will take place as long as we refuse to recognize the first nations as one of the founding peoples. Two or three years from now, we will be talking about housing and education rights. That is the problem. The first nations have a basic right to be part of the discussion and to fundamental respect.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his comments. Generally, we agree, but the question of the role of the Indian Act concerns aboriginal people first and foremost. National Chief Atleo has said that there are major problems with the act. He wants to see changes made to it, but that is an issue for a broader dialogue than today's debate on the right to clean, safe water.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

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.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments from my colleague on what we believe is a very important issue.

In Manitoba, the impact is so profound that we look to the government to give it extra attention. The Government of Manitoba wants to work with the federal government to see something happen on this file.

I wonder if my colleague could comment on how important it is that provincial governments, such as Manitoba, get involved where they might be able to ensure that quality water is delivered to all citizens.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, I neglected to mention the conversations that take place at the federal-provincial level. We know about this in Newfoundland and Labrador with the situation we had several years ago in northern Labrador.

I do not feel that standards are as vigorously enforced as they should be. My colleague from British Columbia mentioned the same thing earlier. When it comes to the standards by which we judge clean drinking water, where is the law on this? Where are the regulations? Where does it say that we need to have this? In order to have a basic human right fulfilled, we need to have a law that is enforceable so that the people have an opportunity to fight for their basic human rights through the processes that we have in the country.

I noticed in a letter to my hon. colleague for St. Paul's from the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development that it talked about the assessment released on July 14, 2011. It reads:

...the majority of risk is due to capacity issues, although infrastructure issues and lack of enforceable standards are also a factor. Department officials are engaging with First Nations and other stakeholders on the recommendations and next steps.

Herein lies what I think is a monumental task. It has a lot to do with communication, more so than getting the right equipment in there to ensure this happens and engaging the community in the best way possible, but a lot of times we do not do that.

I suspect that a couple of months from now those 200 boil water advisories I spoke of in my province will still be there. A lot of it has to do with the communication. We need to provide the spark in order for the federal government to talk with the provincial and territorial governments, as well as first nations groups across this country, including people like Shawn Atleo.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, this has been a very worthwhile debate today. I think the spirit in which of some of the presentations have been made have been positive and with some very good points made. We know very well that government after government of different political stripes and some provincial initiatives that have been undertaken were well -intended but governments have fallen short.

Earlier in the debate, before I had to leave the chamber, the comment was made about access to freshwater. Two of the main health factors and greatest challenges first nations communities face right now are obesity and diabetes. We are seeing first nations consuming more pop because, in some rural communities, the cost of milk is unaffordable and they drink pop instead. If they had access to clean drinking water, would my colleague think that this would--

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

Order, please. I must interrupt the hon. member for Cape Breton—Canso. We will not have the opportunity to hear the answer from his colleague.

It being 5:15 p.m., it is my duty to interrupt the proceedings and put forthwith every question necessary to dispose of the business of supply.

The question is on the amendment. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the amendment?

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

(Amendment agreed to)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion as amended?