Mr. Speaker, I am glad to join the debate today on this bill, but it is not because this is a good piece of legislation. It is a bill that misses the mark on an important issue.
The legislation concerns itself with a basic human right: the right to safe, sufficient, affordable drinking water. For too many in this world, that is unattainable, but while it might be tempting to think that struggle is the stuff of distant and impoverished nations, it is difficult to admit this is a challenge in many Canadian communities. It is even more difficult to admit how many of those—in fact, a disproportionately large number of them—are first nations communities.
For a country blessed with the freshwater resources of Canada, it should be unimaginable that this is the case. Yet here we are today debating a bill that seems more interested in pursuing a Conservative view of how first nations should be run than dealing with the actual problem. Bill S-8 is long on prescriptions and predictably short on resources to back them up, which helps explain, in part, why this is a problem that persists.
What we have is another in a series of bills that excuses the government from its primary obligations to first nations while subjecting those communities to substantial risk, significant financial burdens and a patchwork of provincial standards for the delivery of safe drinking water. What this bill does not do is adequately address the needs of first nations to build capacity in order to develop and administer water and waste water systems on their lands.
This bill would provide for federal regulations to govern drinking water, water quality standards and the disposal of waste water in first nations communities, which sounds good enough, but we will see that the devil is in the details, like the way it leaves communities on the hook for existing problems they may not have created, even if what they really want to do is start over in an attempt to get things right.
Some of the items covered in this legislation are the training and certification of operators for drinking and waste water systems; source water protection; the location, design, construction, modification, maintenance, operation and decommissioning of drinking water and waste water systems; drinking water distribution by truck; the collection and treatment of waste water; the monitoring, sampling and testing of waste water and the reporting of test results; and the handling, use and disposal of products of waste water treatment.
As I mentioned, these regulations may incorporate, by reference, provincial regulations governing drinking and waste water in first nations communities. What is not mentioned is that those regulations are not uniform, which could lead to unequal burdens for communities for what is primarily a federal responsibility.
The Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations expressed concern about using provincial regulations, claiming it would result in a patchwork of regulations, leading to some first nations having more stringent standards than others. Incredibly, the regulations in this bill would overrule any laws or bylaws made by a first nation. This is becoming old hat for the government. It has an insatiable capacity for paternalistic measures when it comes to first nations. That goes hand in hand with the seemingly uncontrollable urge to shortchange first nations with crippling cutbacks, as we saw recently with tribal councils. In keeping with the Conservatives' desire to excuse themselves from federal responsibilities, this bill would limit the liability of the government for certain acts or omissions that occur in the performance of their duties under the regulations the bill sets out.
As I mentioned at the outset, safe drinking water is a basic human right. For many first nation communities, adequate access to this has been a well-known problem for more than a decade.
This is not the first crack the Conservatives have had at this issue, either. What is unfortunate is how this really is not any better than the previous attempt.
The other place has sent us a similar piece of legislation that also tried to undermine the primary responsibility of the federal government when it comes to first nations. We have already seen the preference to employ the mishmash of provincial regulations on water safety instead of determining an even and consistent set of regulations, regulations that should have been arrived at in consultation with first nations instead of by unelected and unaccountable professional politicians in the other place. Perhaps if there were a few people involved in developing these regulations who would ultimately have to use them, we might be debating a bill with a little more merit to it.
I would not want anyone to think that New Democrats do not appreciate the need to address inadequate water systems or to improve standards in what can only be viewed as far too many communities for a country as rich as Canada. We understand the connection to health and economic well-being that flows from safe, dependable and affordable water. It is this legislation that is missing the mark.
For example, this bill would make first nations liable for water systems that have already proven inadequate, but has no funding to help them improve those deficient systems. Even if the first nation wants to build a replacement that would better suit their needs, it has to maintain their old and often costly systems at the same time. It is a case of “Sorry, you're stuck with it, and it's a money pit”. In that respect, this is a recipe for failure.
Then there is the end run on aboriginal rights that is written in to the bill. It is a seemingly innocuous statement that sets a terrible principle. By adding the words, “except to the extent necessary to ensure the safety of drinking water on First Nation lands”, the previous clause that states nothing in the bill may be taken as abrogating or derogating from aboriginal or treaty rights is negated.
I want to state that is a Conservative view of how relations should be pursued with first nations and bears no resemblance to the New Democrat belief that the relationship between Canada and our first nations should be rooted in a respectful nation-to-nation dialogue on matters like this.
It is a relationship that should grow out of a trust that is built in many ways, including through legislation arrived at as a result of thorough consultation and not as the product of a patriarchal view of how things could be better when viewed through the narrow lens of red and black ink on a ledger sheet.
New Democrats believe that regulations alone will not help first nations people to develop and maintain safe on-reserve water systems. They need crucial investments in human resources and physical infrastructure, including drinking water and sewage systems, and adequate housing. It is naive to think this can be achieved on the cheap.
In the riding of Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, Constance Lake First Nation's water supply has been through a state of emergency. Its traditional water source has been contaminated by blue green algae, which resulted in a shutdown of the community's water treatment plant. After drilling two new wells, it is off boil water advisories for the first time in years, but it requires a new system to ensure quality and to meet its growing demand. Under this legislation, it would be liable for the old system while it tried to build a new one.
I want to reiterate the importance of safe drinking water. I would encourage all members to take a few moments to become familiar with the good work of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation. Its excellent website is a treasure trove of information and includes this language with respect to the challenges we are discussing today:
While it is hard for many rural communities to provide safe drinking water, the situation in First Nations communities is especially difficult. Since 1995, a number of reports have highlighted the unacceptable situation in these communities. Health Canada still tells approximately 120 communities to boil their water and Indian Affairs says that there is a good chance that water systems in 85 communities could break down. Without a proper regulatory framework and enough resources, First Nations will continue to face this risk to public health. We work with First Nations to improve public policies to make sure that First Nations get the systems and resources they need.
I would have the government note the reference to working with first nations and the need to provide resources to go along with the proper regulatory framework.
Ultimately, the Safe Drinking Water Foundation sees the challenges for what they are, that what is really needed is for the government to sit down with first nations in a peer-to-peer manner and work together to develop a kind of regulatory framework that will ultimately change the circumstances for many first nations.
While the government is able to ram through legislation, that should not be its goal, especially for issues as important as this. If the government is able to go back to the drawing board, undertake the necessary consultation to legitimize the process and draw up legislation that reflects as much, it will be better received on the opposition benches and, more important, among Canada's first nations.
I want to also mention that the Chiefs of Ontario, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Treaty 7 first nations in Alberta have signalled continued concerns with the proposed legislation, signing among others the need to address infrastructure and capacity issues before introducing federal regulations.
It is not only the opposition that is against this legislation; it is first nations that would actually benefit from better drinking water. They know this is not what they need. They need actual resources.