Mr. Speaker, this is a hugely important topic that we are discussing this afternoon. I do not think that there is anyone in this chamber who does not believe that the question of unsafe drinking water has been a chronic problem and an embarrassment to Canada. Many first nation communities, especially northern and rural communities, are still living in third world conditions here in Canada in 2012.
On September 30, 2012, 116 first nations communities throughout Canada were still subject to a drinking water advisory.
This is clearly unacceptable and requires immediate action.
As National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Assembly of First Nations, said, “Access to safe, potable water and sanitation is a basic human right”. Unfortunately, the bill would simply provide for the development of federal regulations governing the provision of drinking water, water quality standards and the disposal of waste water in first nation communities.
According to every report addressing the tragic situation of water on reserve, the massive infrastructure deficit—and problems with capacity—must first be addressed before any legislation is passed.
I remember visiting the communities in northern Manitoba a little more than two years ago during the outbreak of H1N1. In Garden Hill, only 50% of the community had access to safe drinking water. In Wasagamack, only 20% of the homes had access to safe drinking water, and those are the homes on the footprint of the health unit. There are federal labour laws that insist people working in that space have to have clean drinking water.
Unfortunately, this bill does not provide any additional resources or funding to address this critical capacity gap in infrastructure, nor in training. Further, there are serious concerns about the lack of real consultation with first nations during the development of the legislation, infringements on first nations jurisdiction and the inadequacy of the non-derogation clause currently in the bill.
The government's own national assessment on first nations water and waste waster systems, released on July 14, 2011, identified 314 water systems as high risk. It is interesting that the report was ready in April but somehow ended up delayed in order to not actually influence the election of 2011. The majority of high-risk systems served a small population, and water systems in remote communities were 2.5 times more likely be at high risk than low risk.
Now, more than a year after the release of that report on the national assessment on first nations water and waste water systems, which shows 73% of reserve water systems at high or medium risk, the Conservatives have failed to make any real progress toward the right of every first nations community to clean, safe, running water. As previously noted, as of September 30, 2012, there were still 116 first nations communities across Canada under a drinking water advisory. This is simply unacceptable.
I want to remind this Chamber that some of the communities that do not have drinking water at all and have to truck bottles of water to each home are not included in those statistics.
The Assembly of First Nations estimates that it will cost approximately $6.6 billion over 10 years to address this deficit. The 2012 federal budget allocated $33.8 million over two years for first nations water systems and wastewater infrastructure. This level of funding will perpetuate the status quo from previous years and is grossly inadequate.
“The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems” said it would cost $1.08 billion to bring everything up to protocol immediately. The government's own estimates identify a $5.8 billion funding shortfall to deal with the first nations water and waste water capacity gap.
After the release of the national report on September 13, 2011, I wrote to the minister with respect to what we thought was impending legislation on water and waste water management. I quote:
I am writing to you on behalf of Liberal Leader Bob Rae and my Liberal colleagues in the Senate and House of Commons to convey the position of our caucus regarding the government's approach to creating a regulatory regime for drinking water for First Nations on reserve. Our position [which has not changed] has two main points:
First, Liberals will not support any legislation on safe drinking water that is introduced without an implementation plan for additional resourcing that fully addresses the deficiencies identified in the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Waste Water Systems (prepared by Neegan Burnside Ltd., April 2011). There is a clear consensus that the resource gap must be addressed as a precondition to any regulatory regime. The Report of the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations (November 2006) states unequivocally that “it is not credible to go forward with any regulatory regime without adequate capacity to satisfy the regulatory requirements..”. This precondition was repeated by witnesses at the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples during its study of Bill S-11, An Act respecting the safety of drinking water on first nations lands, in spring of 2011.
Second, the government must collaborate with First Nations and obtain their free, prior and informed consent [as stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People] on the range of regulatory options regarding safe drinking water identified by the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations before the re-introduction of legislation. This approach is consistent with the Crown's obligation under the law, existing treaties and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We went on to say:
It is essential that the concerns raised in this letter are fully addressed in the government's policy on safe drinking water for First Nations. The body of survey data, research and parliamentary testimony on this matter are a clear guide on what must be done. It is up to the government to adopt a new approach of collaboration and mutual accountability—one that we believe will surely have better results for the health and well-being of First Nation citizens.
That was the letter we sent September 13, 2011, and we have not changed our minds.
A year ago, in November 2011, the Conservative government supported the Liberal Party motion introduced in the House of Commons calling on the government 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. Yet, the government has still not moved to resolve this deplorable situation a year later.
The 2012 federal budget allocated a measly $330.8 million over two years for first nations water infrastructure. However, this money simply maintained the status quo from the previous year and was far from what is required. The Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations was clear, and I will say it again. It is not credible to go forward with any regulatory regime without adequate capacity to satisfy the regulatory requirements.
According to that report, regulation alone will not ensure safe drinking water. Any regulations must be accompanied by the adequate investment in human resources and physical assets. Yet, the government is content to impose standards and regulation on first nations regarding water and waste water treatment without providing the required investment in physical assets or capacity-building assistance to deal with the problem.
Where are the additional resources and funding to address the capacity gap? Where is the credible plan to bring first nations water systems up to a level comparable with other Canadian communities and the plan to keep them there, meaning the adequate training to keep those systems working after they have been installed? Where is the credible plan to have enough training and certification that the first nations themselves can design?
When I visited the Beausoleil First Nation in your riding, Mr. Speaker, I heard the story of unacceptable waits for a membrane just to fix a state-of-the-art treatment plant. There was worry after a lightning storm. There were fully qualified and very experienced 20-year veterans, who were unable to step into the water treatment plant after an electrical storm because they had not met the criteria. Even though in any oral exam these people were encyclopedic about the microbiology and the planning of it, they had to wait until the next morning for the first ferry for someone from the mainland to come along, to even walk into the plant.
It is ridiculous that we cannot find a system that allows people to work who know how to do the things that need to be done for their people. They end up on a boil water advisory because of that gap. It is just totally unacceptable and shows that no one is listening to these people as to what it takes to meet their needs.
The government must immediately target sufficient financial resources to close the capacity gap for first nations, in terms of both infrastructure and training regarding water and waste water systems on first nations land. Most of all, it must listen to first nations themselves and involve them in the planning for the placement of these projects as well as the training and certification.
There is no question that the goal of the bill is right. We want to address health and safety issues on reserve lands and certain other lands, by providing for regulations and waste water. Unfortunately, we believe the work has not been done in developing the kinds of regulations that are required. The regulations, on a province-to-province basis, to mirror existing provincial regulatory schemes, may not work all of the time. First nations must be consulted this time.
Despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric at the recent Crown–first nations gathering about resetting the relationship, the Conservative government has shown a total disregard for the rights of indigenous people. The government has used the same flawed approach on first nations accountability and matrimonial real property without discussions on the specifics of the bill with stakeholders or political parties before tabling.
Numerous witnesses who appeared before the Senate committee said that they were frustrated that the government did not consult the first nations regarding the drafting of this bill.
Introduced in the Senate in May 2010, Bill S-11, Safe Drinking Water for First Nations act, was sharply criticized by first nations and NGOs for ignoring the expert panel recommendations and for claiming sweeping jurisdiction without consultation.
Bill S-8 has most of the same flaws as its predecessor and does not seem to have taken first nations concerns into account. Consultation requires both a substantive dialogue and that the government listen and, when appropriate, incorporate what it hears into its approach. Consultation is not an information session, as we have heard time and time again, legislation after legislation, by the government. How can the government cite The Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations as the prime example of its consultation process and then move forward with a regulatory regime without a plan to deal with capacity issues for implementation? Consultation is of no use if the government simply disregards what it hears.
It is also unacceptable that the current non-derogation clause in the bill still expressly allows for the abrogation or derogation of aboriginal and treaty rights.
It is clear that the legislation completely misses the mark and fails to deal with the real issues underscoring first nations access to clean, safe drinking water. Until the government comes forward with a credible plan to deal with the huge shortfall in funding for needed infrastructure and the training required to further develop the operational capacity within communities to maintain that infrastructure, we are not going to tackle this national disgrace.
That is what the government's own expert panel has told it. That is what first nations is telling it. It is time for the government to listen.
It is with sadness, I remind the House, that it was seven years ago when the Kelowna accord was signed, after 18 months of work with first nations and provinces and territories. Five billion dollars was assigned to close the gap, and then the agreement was torn up as soon as this government came to office. We are seven years behind where we could have begun to address the problem with that money that was expressly for these purposes.
This afternoon I asked the minister whether we could expect to see in budget 2013 the kinds of dollars the Conservatives' own expert panels stated would be necessary to fix this problem.
To me, a strategy must be what, by when and how. My question for the government and the minister, accordingly, is when will 100% of first nations homes in 100% of communities have the same access to safe and potable drinking water and to waste water management as other Canadians in all communities and municipalities in this country?
I implore this House to actually call upon the government to put in place the dollars necessary to meet the objectives of the bill. Otherwise the bill is totally useless.