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

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate because, as many of my colleagues know, water issues are something in which I have a profound interest and have been working on almost since being elected in 2004. Of course, there is perhaps no more urgent water issue in this country today than the quality of drinking water available to our first nations people on first nations reserves.

It is vitally important, in a country like Canada, that no citizen living in a community, however small, be without access to potable water. It is impossible to understand how, in a country like Canada, citizens living in a community would not have access to water for sanitation. We know, and it has been said before in this House today and many times before today, that water is central to proper sanitation. Without proper sanitation, we have outbreaks of epidemics, like H1N1, because people cannot wash their hands or otherwise maintain proper sanitation. Therefore, the issue of quality drinking water and quality water for sanitation is not just a question of having access to the immediate household staple of quality water, it is a question of public health.

I must congratulate my hon. leader for sponsoring this motion today on such an important issue. The impetus for this motion comes from a report released in July 2011 called the National Assessment of First Nation Water and Wastewater Systems. Just by way of background, I will mention that the study covered 97% of first nations. Four first nations chose not to participate in the study but 97% of first nations were covered. Although I am not a statistician, I know that 97% coverage is a very strong sample size.

The study found that if we want to bring first nations drinking water up to standard, we need to spend a fair amount of money still. Even though there have been investments in the past, we need to spend $1.08 billion in construction costs and $79.8 million in non-construction costs to bring all existing systems up to INACs protocol standards. The non-construction costs would involve spending on operator training and the development of various kinds of plans.

Finally, the costs of new servicing, including construction, operation and maintenance costs over a 10 year period are estimated at $4.7 billion. As members can see, there is a need for an infusion of resources if we are to do justice by our first nations people.

I will go back to a 2005 report by the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development , which I read very carefully. From the report, we learned that 460,000 first nations people in Canada live on reserves, that Canada has about 600 first nations communities and that, of those communities, about 78,000 first nations people live in about 90 isolated communities without any year-round road access.

Providing potable water and access to water for sanitation to first nations is not an optional policy choice for the current government or any other government. The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility for the health and well-being of aboriginal Canadians living on first nations reserves. That is without dispute. This fiduciary responsibility includes ensuring that first nations communities have access to safe drinking water.

By way of information, the federal government exercises direct responsibility for first nations drinking water in those communities located south of 60, while the territorial governments do so for communities north of 60.

Again, by way of background, there are two federal departments that are the most directly involved in ensuring first nations communities have access to safe drinking water, one being what was formerly called the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, INAC, and the other being Health Canada. INAC funds the cost of building and maintaining first nations drinking water systems in communities. The department also covers the costs of operating and maintaining these systems, including the costs for training and certifying water system operators. In addition, the department tests source waters that supply first nations drinking water treatment plants. That is very important, and I will get into this a little later.

The efficacy of a water treatment plant depends, not only on the technology in that plant but also on the source water that is feeding that plant. Therefore, it is extremely important that we protect source water in Canada, specifically source water that is very close to drinking water treatment plants.

Health Canada, on the other hand, tests first nations drinking water at the tap. Health Canada works with first nations south of 60 to identify potential drinking water problems, including verification and monitoring of the overall quality of drinking water at the tap, and we are not talking about source water, and reviewing, interpreting and disseminating results to first nations.

Environment Canada is a third department. I said that there were two departments principally involved with the issue of first nations drinking water but Environment Canada is also involved. It is involved in giving advice and guidance in the area of source water protection.

A fourth department that is also involved is Public Works and Government Services Canada. Already we can see that this is a complex problem. Yes, it is a problem of money and a problem of political will but it is also a problem of the structure and the processes of government. I will come back to that a bit later.

What does Public Works and Government Services Canada do? Public Works and Government Services Canada provides Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development with technical services on the design of water treatment plants. If the government were putting out tenders to build water treatment plants, obviously this would go through Public Works and Government Services and it would supply some technical specifications. We already have four departments involved.

I mentioned money and money is important. In fact, one of the reasons that first nations were against Bill S-11 was because it proposed a regime for creating regulations to govern drinking water on first nations reserves but there did not seem to be any money attached to that law. A law without the resources to implement the law is not much of a law at all. It is just wishful thinking. I would point out that spending on first nations water needs has not kept pace with the growth of the aboriginal population in Canada.

There is another problem with government when it comes to ensuring quality drinking water on first nations reserves. Yes, there are the four departments. They have complex relationships among themselves. Yes, there is the problem of not having enough money to solve this problem. There is also the problem that it is fundamentally a scientific issue.

Water policy must be based on science. Water policy requires that the government have the scientific resources to identify problems that need to be solved. I talked about how Environment Canada looks after the protection of source waters on first nations communities but it needs to have scientists to do that job properly. What we have seen in the last few years, and even more so at an accelerated pace, is that the government does not seem to have the resources to hire scientists. In fact, the talk at Fisheries and Oceans and at Environment Canada is that not only are scientists not allowed to speak and are muzzled and discouraged from doing their work, but we see that there will probably be, as a result of budget cuts, fewer and fewer scientists working inside Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans.

The atrophied state of federal water science is a component of this problem. It is not something that we notice right off the bat. We said that it was a question of money, of political will, and, yes, it is a question of those things, but when we scratch under the surface we cannot have good water policy, whether we are talking about water on first nations reserves or any other aspect of water policy, unless we have good science.

Here is what is extremely interesting and sadly ironic. There are no laws and regulations governing the provision of drinking water in first nations communities, unlike other communities in Canada. This is a situation where the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to guarantee adequate drinking water to first nations and yet there are no laws or regulations governing the provision of drinking water in first nations communities.

What is even more ironic is that if people are nurses employed by the federal government working in a nursing station on a first nations reserve, or if they are employees of the Department of Foreign Affairs working in an embassy somewhere around the world, they are governed by regulations. The government must provide them with drinking water that is up to standard.

This is not me speaking. It was mentioned by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I will read a passage from his 2005 report:

Under the Canada Labour Code and the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations, every federally regulated employer has to provide its employees with drinking water that meets the standards set out in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. Federal employees working in First Nations communities are covered by these regulations.

Is that not ironic? Aboriginal Canadians living in these communities are not covered by regulations but federal employees working there are. I will continue with the quote:

We found that in 2002 Health Canada installed small water treatment units in nursing clinics and health stations in at least 20 First Nations communities that were regularly experiencing drinking water safety problems. This was a result of Human Resources and Development Canada intervention to ensure that federal employees working in these facilities would be provided with safe drinking water as prescribed under the Canada Labour Code.

This is an irony that cannot be allowed to stand much further. This is obviously a glaring problem.

This is a complex issue and there is a scientist, Dr. Hans Peterson, who works in the north and who has dedicated a tremendous amount of time in his career to helping first nations communities solve their drinking water problems. He has found that water filtration is by no means a simple and straightforward matter. It is not a question of just installing, plugging in, and activating a filtration unit. The kind of filtration system a community requires depends on the quality of its source water, which I mentioned earlier.

This comes back to the issue of lack of coordination. In many cases, filtration system designers, who may even be located in an engineering firm in another country, have limited knowledge of the characteristics of source water in the community in question. Obviously, this is ironic.

According to Dr. Peterson, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, which was INAC at the time, appeared less than interested in the complexities of the relationship between source water type, filtration system design, and the quality of the treated water at the tap.

In the case of a water treatment plant being built in Saskatchewan, which goes back a couple of years, Dr. Peterson stated:

--INAC’s only criteria for building a water treatment system in Saskatchewan is still an ‘engineering stamp’. To the best of SDWF’s knowledge, and in discussion with the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, engineers have also not been given the opportunity to advise INAC on the most effective systems for different source waters, as INAC is only interested in requesting bids for, and purchasing, specific conventional water treatment systems that are chosen based on the cheapest bid.

It is not just a question of money or political will, it is a question of coordination among the various government departments that have something to say about first nations drinking water.

Again I will quote Dr. Peterson, who in this particular quotation seemed to be pointing to the lack of coordination between Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. It is an old quotation. He stated:

INAC and HC do not appear to share data for source and treated waters and, as such, are unable to make sound decisions on effective treatment processes--

The list goes on and on.

There was a report published maybe three or four years ago which was published following consultations with first nations communities. What came out of that report was the recommendation that a first nations water commission be created where members of first nations could be brought together to share information relating to the provision of potable water in these communities. To my knowledge, the government has not acted on that recommendation. I think it is a good recommendation. It gets first nations communities involved in decision-making about water treatment in their communities. I would heartily recommend that the government pursue the issue and implement that recommendation.

Lastly, it is very important that the government not take the easy way out. Through legislation and regulation it should not impose provincial drinking water standards on first nations communities because not all provinces have drinking water standards that are at the level of the national drinking water guidelines. By doing so, it would skirt its federal responsibility, which would not be fair to the first nations people of the country.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:45 p.m.

Kenora
Ontario

Conservative

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

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member's comments at the very end. I thought it was one of the more important parts of his speech. That is exactly what we want to do, which is to develop a federal framework or piece of legislation that the federal government and the first nations communities can count on for enforceable standards.

What I always appreciate, although perhaps somewhat unfairly, and find ironic is when a member of the Liberal Party uses words like “fiduciary duty”.

He mentioned nurses working in those isolated communities. Maybe he was not here when I spoke just prior, but I was actually a nurse working in these isolated communities between the years 1992 and 2006, and have taken my share of distilled bottled water showers when those fragile water systems failed. Therefore, I agree with the member that it is important and that we need legislation.

However, in the absence of real standards that the government and first nations could have counted on then, will the member support our piece of legislation coming forward that, in a profound, meaningful and substantive way, will attempt to bring in regulations for us all to depend on to ensure first nations have access to safe drinking water and appropriate waste water treatment?

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

First, Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend and congratulate the hon. member on the good work he did in the north in helping to provide health care for our aboriginal brothers and sisters. No doubt he would agree with the quote I read from the 2005 report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

In terms of legislation and regulations, we would have to see what that legislation is, what those regulations are. We would have to know if there is money to back up the legislation. We would have to know if first nations communities agree with the legislation, if they feel they have been properly consulted, and again, as a member of the Liberal opposition, I want to avoid any possibility that the federal government would wash its hands of its fiduciary responsibilities for first nations drinking water by having provincial standards apply to these communities.

We need to have the best federal standards apply to these communities. Not only that, our federal standards need to be brought up to EPA standards similar to those in the U.S.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:50 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

Mr. Speaker, when I speak to the first nations in my community, whether it be Kitigan or Barriere Lake, there is just at this point an incredible amount of frustration.

This is a problem that has existed for decades. The Liberal and Conservative governments really have done very little to deal with the situation. Frankly, the people are at the end of their rope. They are impatient and I understand them.

I do support, of course, the principle of the motion, but I would like to hear the member's ideas as to why this extremely urgent issue has not been dealt with adequately in the decades that have transpired.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the experience the hon. member has on this issue by virtue of the fact that he has the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in his community. I have many good friends in that community. I do not know if he knows Dave Nawhegabow, someone I have known for a very long time.

Why have we not resolved this problem to this point? I agree it is very complex and technical. I mentioned that in addition to money and political will, which previous governments have had, the member would have to admit, there is a structural management and coordination problem within government.

It was the report, for example, of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation that helped us uncover that problem. I would hope that the government would address that problem as well as investing more money.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Ottawa South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would also like to commend the remarks made by my colleague and remind the House of his good work at the environment committee of several years ago which led to the new agreement between the federal government and the provincial government of Alberta, which is now monitoring water and water quality around the Athabasca River and the oil sands. I think folks should be reminded of that.

He did touch on the question of science cuts, which is eerily reminiscent of the cuts we saw, in my case, in my home province of Ontario some eleven years ago. Those cuts, science cuts and water inspection cuts, led to the terrible tragedy of Walkerton, where seven people died and 2,500 people were sick, some of whom are still battling with the terrible diseases that flowed from that tragedy.

What is perhaps most astonishing is that we actually have to remind the government of the urgency to act in this regard. We have a Minister of Finance, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, a President of the Treasury Board, a Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, and a smattering of parliamentary secretaries and government MPs who served in the Ontario government and who were held responsible by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor in his report on the Walkerton crisis.

Why it takes the opposition Liberal Party, and the good work of my colleague here, and our leader to raise the urgency of this matter is all the more astonishing. Perhaps my colleague might take a moment to comment on that sense of urgency.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank the hon. member for his kind words for the work that we both did, and in fact that the Liberals did on the environment committee to raise the profile of an issue which actually had something to do with source water protection, and that was the monitoring of the impact of the oil sands on the Athabasca River watershed.

I travelled with the committee. We went up to Fort Chipewyan, and first nations citizens there were telling us that they feared that their source water was being polluted by deposits of deleterious substances from the oil sands industry.

The lesson of Walkerton teaches us that we need government supervision. Whenever we decide to cut back on government expenditures, we should be very careful not to cut back in areas that affect people's health. We should always give the benefit of the doubt to proper regulation and oversight by government over other considerations.

I would like to end with a little anecdote. We have heard of Walkerton. We have heard of problems in first nations communities. I live in a suburban riding. My riding covers the western tip of the island of Montreal. It is pure suburb. About a month ago all the cities in my riding were told they could not drink the water for four days. Fortunately, everything was okay.

We found out that everything was fine. The municipal authorities reacted very well. I was very proud of Mayor Bill McMurchie of Pointe-Claire and other mayors in the community, including John Meaney. I will say that panic started to set in, in a suburban community on the island of Montreal.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:55 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

Mr. Speaker, the member just answered a question from one of his colleagues who asked why it has taken action by the Liberal Party to bring this to the government's attention when it is such an urgent issue.

I wonder if the member had maybe forgotten that, in fact, his party was in government for 13 years? It had 13 years to deal with this urgent issue, and it did not do it. I would just like the member to respond to that.

As well, the member brought up the issue of the oil sands and the feeling that there was contamination from the oil sands in the water supply. I am sure the member would, in fact, tell the House that the feeling may have been there, but the pollution was not there and the contamination was not there. Could the member comment on that as well?

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:55 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, in terms of the oil sands, the member is forgetting that his government did a 180 degree turn on this issue.

Up until about a year and a half ago, the standard line coming out of PMO and the environment minister's office was that all traces of bitumen found in the Athabasca River were naturally occurring as the result of the oozing of bitumen from the banks of the Athabasca.

The work by Dr. David Schindler, Canada's foremost water scientist and one of the international community's great water scientists, proved through scientific study that there was a problem, and again we are coming back to the science. I would add that that study was not done with federal funds. He could not find federal funds to do the study. He did it on his own; a semi-retired aquatic biologist did the study. We backed him up in committee with our own policy study. As a result, the Minister of the Environment at the time had to get up and do a 180 and tell Canadians that in fact there was a problem in the oil sands.

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:55 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to the Liberals and Conservatives blaming each other for inaction on drinking water on first nations reserves.

I would like to take this opportunity to draw attention to the Pacheedaht First Nation in my riding. I met with its representatives last week. They have been waiting for more than a decade for a solution to their drinking water problems. Right now they run a rudimentary system of one pump and a backup. The backup no longer works.

If that fails, there will be an immediate health crisis on the Pacheedaht First Nation. It has had a proposal in to build its own filtration plant with new pumps. The proposal has been with INAC for five months. It is still waiting for an answer.

The last time the pumps broke down, it spent two years on bottled water. In that two years, INAC spent more than twice the amount of money on bottled water than it would have spent to build the filtration plant.

There is a great deal of frustration because the attitude at INAC seems to be that once again they are looking for a feasibility study from the regional district or a private company. INAC lacks confidence in the Pacheedaht First Nation to build and run its own system. This problem could have been solved years ago.

I would ask the member whether it is simply a technical problem or a coordination problem, or is it really a failure to trust a first nation and give it the resources it needs to solve its own problems?

Opposition Motion—Aboriginal Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:55 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for raising that particular case, but I am not familiar with it.

When I say it is not always a matter of political will I am saying yes, there seems to be political will to solve the problem, but the political will cannot just be superficially expressed. In this particular case, the political will should translate into concrete action on the ground.

Yes, first nations peoples need to be involved in decisions regarding their water treatment plants. That is why the idea of a first nations water commission is a good one. I would go even further and say that a first nations water commission should be an umbrella group and that each community should have a water council. Yes, there could be representatives from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, Health Canada, and Public Works and Government Services. We can get people talking and then translate the political will into action.

Hillcrest Lodge
Statements By Members

November 17th, 2011 / 2 p.m.

Conservative

Bruce Stanton Simcoe North, ON

Mr. Speaker, today I am pleased to bring attention to the success of an innovative seniors' housing initiative in my riding called Hillcrest Lodge.

For low-income seniors in our area facing illness, isolation and risks to their safety, Hillcrest is setting a new standard. It has created a community where quality housing, safety, good food and camaraderie have transformed the quality of life for some of our most vulnerable.

At Hillcrest, the cost of rent, utilities, meals and insurance is well below 60% of the average $16,000 a year that a low-income senior lives on. The residents have independence; a safe, inviting home; and a caring staff. I hope the Hillcrest model will spur the creation of more of these affordable assisted-living communities in the years ahead.

I would like to take this time to congratulate the Hillcrest volunteer board of directors and their partners, like Helping Hands and Community Care Access. They are working together to make supportive, assisted living a reality for seniors in our region.

Democracy
Statements By Members

2 p.m.

NDP

Jamie Nicholls Vaudreuil-Soulanges, QC

Mr. Speaker, in 1956, the Speaker of the House and hon. member for Vaudreuil-Soulanges, Louis-René Beaudoin, had to end his political career after shutting down an important debate on the construction of a pipeline. Closure of that debate caused such an uproar that chaos reigned in the House for weeks.

Here we are 55 years later and we see closure invoked on a weekly basis. Preventing debate has become a habit for this government. The Conservatives brag about how wonderful democracy is the world over, but they are having a hard time practising it here in this House.

What are they afraid of? Do they think that shutting down the debates will prevent Canadians from noticing the flaws and nonsense in their answers?

Employment
Statements By Members

2 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Kenora, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have more good news to report for the great Kenora riding. AbitibiBowater recently announced they have purchased, and are fast under way in retooling and modernizing, a dormant building in the beautiful town of Ignace. More than 100 well-paying permanent jobs will return to the community very soon, just like the 600,000 other jobs our government has helped produce with Canada's economic action plan.

This is testament to the resolve and resilience of the folks in Ignace, who have always believed that their town has a future in forestry and other industries just on the horizon.

I want to thank the past and present mayors and councils with whom I have had the privilege of working and who have believed that if we could rehabilitate or replace critical infrastructure, Ignace would get a serious look from traditional and new industrial growth. That is exactly what Canada's economic action plan addressed in the Ignace area, putting Ignace in the best possible position for sustainability and growth.

Congratulations to AbitibiBowater and the citizens of Ignace. They are just another example of what is so great about the great Kenora riding.

Youth Homelessness
Statements By Members

2 p.m.

Liberal

Justin Trudeau Papineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, for many years different governments have tried to tackle the challenges surrounding poverty in Canada. We are a rich country and we all do our best to help others. Yet, as youth critic, it bothers me greatly to know that more than 65,000 young Canadians at any given time during the year can be homeless.

While all the different parties are working to find solutions to this issue, why not set a reminder or a time in our busy lives one day a year when we get to ask ourselves, what have we done to help put an end to youth homelessness?

A national youth homelessness awareness day would be that one small step in the right direction. We need all parties, together with the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development in particular, to come together and support this motion.

Let us show Canadians that when it comes to our young people and their well-being, we can do the right thing and be non-partisan in creating this annual reminder to us and to all that we need to address the root causes of youth homelessness.