Mr. Speaker, I will share my time with the member for Manicouagan.
I rise today to speak to Bill S-8. I had the opportunity to speak to this bill last November. I sat on the committee and I must say that the testimony from witnesses only reinforced the NDP's opinion that this is a flawed piece of legislation.
At the heart of this debate is a basic human right: the right to safe, affordable and adequate drinking water. Unfortunately, this is a challenge in many Canadian communities, including several first nations and Inuit communities.
Canada has such an abundance of water that it is hard to imagine that such problems could exist in such a developed country.
While the appropriate course of action is to develop safe, reliable systems in partnership with the communities in need, the Conservative government has chosen to legislate regulations that would force these communities to go it alone. In fact, this legislation seems more about pursuing a Conservative view of how first nations should be run than about dealing with the actual problem. It would create demands and conditions for first nations, yet it is predictably short on the resources that would allow these communities to comply.
Bill S-8 excuses the government from its primary obligations to first nations while subjecting them to substantial risk, significant financial burdens and a patchwork of provincial standards for the delivery of safe drinking water.
This bill fails miserably when it comes to the real challenge, which is helping first nations build the capacity that would allow them to do the work of administering water and waste water systems on their lands. It is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. In the case of communities that have been consistently asking for assistance for specific problems, they are getting rules and regulations instead of help with bricks and mortar.
The problems we have seen with flooding this spring in Kashechewan help illustrate this point. That community has been asking for help with waste water, which has been identified as problematic, since flooding in 2008. It has asked for assistance in developing storm sewers and with placing back-flow limiters on each house. Guess what? The government has consistently refused to step up, and this spring, homes in that community were inundated with backed-up raw sewage, which then forced the community to be evacuated. The minister tried to blame this on the lack of training, yet it was a company that was actually monitoring this.
On a larger scale, we can consider the testimony the committee heard from a municipal group that included the mayor of Maple Ridge and metro Vancouver's general manager of corporate services, both of whom sit on metro Vancouver's aboriginal relations committee. They reminded the committee that the report of the 2009 national assessment of first nations water and waste water estimated the cost to bring 618 individual first nations up to standard would be $4.7 billion, and it would take a decade. In addition to that, the cost to operate these improved systems would be $419 million a year.
The metro Vancouver delegation told us that local governments were concerned about this legislation's broad powers to delegate to any person or body any aspect of drinking water provision, monitoring and enforcement, which could have significant implications for local governments, as providers of utility services. It also highlighted areas of concern identified by local governments.
On that note, I want to tell the House that what we were hearing was that it may be very difficult to have municipal governments even wanting to assist first nations in hooking up to their systems because of the onerous aspects of this legislation.
Among their concerns were the following: there has been a lack of consultation and local government input; the transfer of responsibilities is unknown; the level of services is unclear; there are challenges with bylaw regulations and enforcement; there are legislative and jurisdictional uncertainties, which appear to be similar to the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act; regulatory authority over reserves is unclear; there is a need to clarify financial liabilities; there are unknown funding capacities; and there is a lack of an adequate implementation plan. Does that sound like legislation that is ready to roll out? I do not think so.
As I mentioned, the committee heard from many witnesses who spoke to the deficiencies in Bill S-8. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has made three submissions on this bill and its predecessor, Bill S-11. It echoed many of the criticisms of other witnesses and stated:
We remain alarmed and concerned with the federal government’s continued approach and insistence that legislation is the answer for First Nations. We question why the current Canadian Government must be compelled to legislate as opposed to doing what is humane and just by providing adequate resources to ensure comparable water systems as the rest of Canada.
It went on to state:
Trust is earned through respectful, reciprocal and honourable actions and good faith negotiations.
The creation of legislation and policy without seeking and meeting the realistic needs of First Nations will not create success or the accountability that government is seeking for its investments.
It is not for a lack of desire that first nations do not have appropriate systems to deliver safe drinking water or manage waste water. If there is a deficiency in the process, it is certainly related to being able to deliver on those desires.
I have heard from Whitefish River First Nation on this subject as well. In a letter to the minister, Chief Shining Turtle provided the government with some basic math that showed how flimsy the government's community infrastructure investment was, and also illustrated the incredible costs related to doing the kind of work that Bill S-8 would make mandatory for these communities.
Here is the math that I believe needs to be considered by all members. The government has committed $155 million over 10 years, so let us do the math. This comes out to about $15 million a year, divide that over 8 regions that INAC uses and it becomes $1.94 million a year per region. We are going down. Divide the $1.94 million over the Ontario region's 133 first nations and the total is $14,567.67 a year. How far will that go?
One more crucial number that has been provided is the cost per metre to construct water mains on the Whitefish River First Nation. It is $300 per metre.
While the government brags about the size of their investment in community infrastructure for first nations, in reality that money is only enough to build 48.5 metres of water main a year.
In addition to these problems, Bill S-8 regulations may incorporate, by reference, provincial regulations governing drinking and waste water in first nations communities, but 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.
In addition to that, the regulations in this bill would overrule any laws or bylaws made by first nations. Bill S-8 would also 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. The connection to health and economic well-being that flows from safe, dependable and affordable water cannot be dismissed, but this legislation is missing the mark entirely.
In addition to that, the bill would leave communities on the hook for existing problems they may not have created themselves. In those instances, if what these places really want is to start over in an attempt to get things right, the reality is they will be saddled with problem systems they have inherited.
It will make first nations liable for water systems that have already proven inadequate, but offers no funding to help them improve those deficient systems. Even if a first nation wants to build a replacement to better suit its needs, it will have to maintain its old, often costly systems at the same time.
Here is an example of how that will work. Constance Lake First Nation's water supply has been through a state of emergency. Its traditional water source was contaminated by blue-green alga, which resulted in a shutdown of its water treatment plant. It has drilled two new wells and has been off boil-water advisories for the first time in years, but also requires a new system to ensure quality and to meet its growing demand. Under the provisions of this legislation, it will be liable for the old system, while it tries to build a new one. It will be forced to waste money instead of being allowed to invest it smartly.
I see my time is up, and I will finish up the rest during the question and answer period.