Mr. Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the opposition and to Canadians about why I and the other members of the Conservative government will be supporting Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, and why I urge all hon. colleagues in the House to vote in favour of a bill that will finally give first nations the tools they need to access safe drinking water on reserve.
It has taken seven years for us to get to this point. For seven years, we have had continuous dialogue and consultations with first nations, including formal engagement sessions, informal discussions, and consultations with community members and leadership, technical experts and department officials. This legislative proposal evolved as we worked together, listening to and accommodating the concerns of first nations living on reserve.
The legislation before Parliament today is the result of hard work and collaboration from coast to coast to coast. It is time to move forward and create the regulations needed to safeguard drinking water in first nations communities.
Right now, there is no such protection for tens of thousands of first nations, so Bill S-8 addresses this urgent need. Until regulations and standards are in place, the safety and quality of water in first nations communities will continue to remain at risk and pose a significant health threat for thousands of individuals living on reserve. It is unfortunate, if not shameful, that the opposition continues to oppose this bill. It would rather stand by and allow for the current situation to continue to be a reality for first nations across the country.
Currently, laws are in place to protect the safety of drinking water accessed by all other Canadians, except in first nations communities. While it is true that a handful of self-governing first nations have enacted laws dealing with drinking water and waste water treatment, they are very much the exception. The truth is that when it comes to regulating drinking water, residents of most first nations communities are left unprotected. We cannot tolerate this any longer.
Access to safe drinking water is a hallmark of a progressive, modern society. It is a basic form of infrastructure that Canadian communities depend on. Without a dependable supply of water, it is much harder to maintain public health. This is precisely why so much effort and expense are devoted to acquiring and securing consistent access to safe drinking water.
A closer examination of this effort and expense sheds light on the needs that Bill S-8 would address. They are these. Safe drinking water results from a chain of events, such as actively protecting sources, filtering and treating water, and regularly conducting quality tests to ensure that all systems are functioning properly. Like all chains, the one that safeguards drinking water is only as strong as its weakest link.
Regulations represent a key link in the chain. While they vary slightly from one jurisdiction to another, all regulations specify science-based standards for quality testing, treatment protocols and other factors. Municipal utilities that supply water to the public must abide by these regulations. If not, the justice system holds them to account. The penalties can be severe, and rightly so, given that the health and safety of Canadians is at stake. After all, contaminated drinking water can lead to disaster.
That is precisely what happened 13 years ago in the town of Walkerton, Ontario. A combination of operator negligence and lax regulatory standards led to the death of seven people and more than 2,000 people falling ill. The tragedy inspired a series of improvements to Ontario's drinking water regulations. Today, the vast majority of Ontarians trust that the water that comes out of their tap is safe to drink. It is our government's objective that first nations communities can have that same trust in their water systems.
Our government strongly believes that the law should afford all Canadians similar protections when it comes to drinking water. Bill S-8 would provide the authorities needed to develop and establish regulatory regimes for safe drinking and the treatment of waste water in first nations communities. The absence of regulations makes it impossible to ensure the safety of drinking water in first nations communities over the long term.
In fact, several studies have made this point abundantly clear. For instance, seven years ago, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development published an in-depth study on the issue. The study concluded that, in most first nations communities, responsibility for the various steps involved in the treatment and delivery of drinking water is diffused among several groups. As a result, it is nearly impossible to hold any single group accountable if something goes wrong; for example, when a pump fails or a water quality test is not done properly.
Here is a quote from that study, “...until a regulatory regime comparable with that in provinces is in place, INAC and Health Canada cannot ensure that First Nations people living on reserves have continuing access to safe drinking water.”
It is clear that without regulations there can be no assurance of the safety of drinking water in first nations communities. Regulations lead to accountability. They assign responsibility for specific tasks and for meeting science-based standards. Regulations provide the overarching framework of a drinking water system and guide the efforts of everyone involved in that system synchronously.
Our government appreciates that regulations alone cannot produce consistently safe drinking water. The other links in the chain must also be in place, such as functional equipment, trained operators, reliable sources of drinking water, proper distribution networks, and appropriate standards, guidelines and protocols. That is why, since 2006, this government has made improving drinking water in first nations communities a top priority.
We have made significant investments in water and waste water infrastructure with approximately $3 billion between 2006 and 2014. As part of Canada's economic action plan version 2012 alone, $330.8 million is being invested over two years. This money has paid for new treatment facilities, upgrades to existing systems, operator training and distribution networks.
While significant progress has been made, regulations are still not in place. However, as a result of these important investments, the percentage of high-risk water systems has decreased by 8.1% and the percentage of high-risk waste water systems by 2.1%. We have doubled funding for the circuit rider training program, which has helped support and train hundreds of first nations water and waste water system operators.
I will take this opportunity to highlight the important work that Confederation College and Northern Waterworks are doing in the great Kenora riding in upgrading the certifications for first nations community members who go back to their isolated first nations communities with more appropriate, if not higher than required, standards to operate water and waste water treatment facilities in their communities.
These programs have seen significant results. For example, since July 2011, the percentage of first nations systems that have primary operators certified to the level of drinking water systems has increased from 51% to 60%, and the percentage of certified waste water system operators has increased from 42% to almost 54%.
Going forward, as we have stated on numerous occasions, I can assure members that our government will continue to invest in water and waste water infrastructure on reserve. As members can see, Bill S-8 is an essential part of our government's larger comprehensive strategy to improve the quality of drinking water for residents of first nations communities.
There are three essential pillars born out of the extensive consultations and the important work done by a coast to coast to coast consultation process in co-operation with the Assembly of First Nations. These three essential pillars are: capacity, with the ability to report, monitor and maintain infrastructure; continued investment in infrastructure; and the development of a clear regulatory framework, which is the basis of today's debate and discussion on Bill S-8.
The legislation before us would help address the third pillar and establish regulatory regimes similar to those that make the drinking water systems in other communities reliable and safe.
Bill S-8 would inspire further progress, not only by establishing regulatory standards but also by extending the collaboration with first nations that continues to generate positive results. When Bill S-8 receives royal assent, our government will continue to work with first nations and other stakeholders to develop regulations on a region-by-region basis. This is important.
Developing regulations by region would enable the government and first nations to partner with municipalities and regional technical experts who deal with the most responsible and the most appropriate forms of water and waste water treatment, which prevail in those regions for a variety of different reasons. This collaborative region-by-region approach would also leverage the value of existing regulations rather than creating entirely new regulations. The most efficient approach is to build upon existing provincial and territorial regulatory frameworks and adapt, where needed, in order to reflect specific local conditions.
We are talking about a very flexible piece of legislation, but let me be clear. This approach would not take jurisdiction away from the first nations, nor would it give a province, territory or municipality jurisdiction over first nation lands. To the contrary, by developing regulations that are comparable to those that exist off reserve, first nations would be better positioned to partner with neighbouring municipalities in the delivery of water treatment services and to co-operate on other matters, such as operator training, business ventures and the adoption of new technologies.
I should add that we are already seeing this. The previous minister of aboriginal affairs and I had an opportunity to tour some water and waste water treatment facilities in Quebec. There we saw water and waste water treatment facilities operating on a reserve for the benefit of that community and the municipality. We also saw communities where water and waste water treatment systems were operating in a municipality or city for the benefit of the reserve. In both instances, there were trained certified operators from both respective communities for the collective benefit of everybody there, better economies and better safety.
There is no question that it will take time to develop and implement regulations across Canada. For this reason, the regulations would be phased in to ensure there is adequate time for the government and first nations to bring drinking water and waste water infrastructure and operating capacity to the levels required to be able to conform with the new regulations. As our government has stated many times in the past, we are not going to roll out regulations until first nations have the capacity to abide by them. Health and safety remain our ultimate goals.
We talked about those three pillars. They support the concept that the pillars not mutually exclusive of each other. They depend on each other to support the kind of framework we are moving forward with first nations on. Namely, if we are going to have legislation, we have to ensure that we have certified operators and that they have the capacity to report, monitor and maintain that infrastructure. Similarly, we have to ensure that they have the infrastructure in place in those communities to be able to meet those standards.
I fully recognize that some first nations do not have the resources needed to help develop these regulations, so back in April 2012 the former minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development sent a letter to all chiefs and band councils confirming that our government would provide the funds needed for eligible activities. We have already provided funding to the Atlantic policy congress to support its researching and analyzing the development of regulations for first nations in the Atlantic region.
In order to continue progress on drinking water in first nation communities, the establishment of an appropriate regulatory regime is required. In the absence of such a regime, investments in infrastructure and training can do little to safeguard water quality. The government has been engaging with first nation partners since coming to government in 2006 and we have continued to engage with first nations on the proposed legislation every step of the way. In fact, this engagement has never stopped.
After the last iteration of the legislation, Bill S-11, died on the order paper, we took action to address some of the concerns that had been raised by first nations and other important stakeholders by making a number of amendments to the current iteration or version of the bill we have before this place.
On the current bill, Bill S-8, we have also continued to consult and we have taken action to address some of those concerns that were raised in regard to the opt-in provision for self-governing first nations. As a result of extensive discussions between stakeholders on this matter, the government brought forward an amendment at committee recommending the removal of this provision from the bill. Removing the opt-in provision serves as yet another good example of the positive results produced by ongoing collaborative discussions with first nations and other stakeholders.
The legislation now before us offers a sensible, practical, balanced solution to an urgent problem that threatens the health of tens of thousands of Canadians. The regulations stemming from Bill S-8 will provide residents of first nation communities with the same level of confidence as other Canadians when it comes to their drinking water.
In closing, this is a matter of health and safety. I appreciate my colleagues' debate. I appreciate the points they have raised in previous readings of the bill and the important work of all committee members as we worked through Bill S-8. However, the priority moving forward is to bring the kind of legislation into play that will support and reflect the need to continue making investments in training and to ensure there are certified operators for the infrastructure, which on an ongoing basis needs to be rehabilitated or replaced.
As a result of those two things, we will find over the course of time, hopefully sooner rather than later, that standards for drinking water and waste water treatment on reserve are at the same levels that other Canadians have come to expect from their respective governments. Therefore, I reach across the way and ask my colleagues to join us and support Bill S-8.