Mr. Speaker, I say at the outset that I intend to share my time with the hon. member for Mississauga West. I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate today and I thank the member for Fundy Royal for framing it by tabling his motion.
I begin by expressing, I know on behalf of all members of the House of Commons, our concern and sympathy for the residents of North Battleford who this week are dealing with an unexpected and what must seem an overwhelming burden. Health Canada is working alongside municipal and provincial officials in North Battleford to provide what assistance we can to that beleaguered municipality.
I intend to vote in favour of the motion as amended, but I will make some comments explaining why. I will also respond to the suggestion which has underlain most of the discussion from the opposition benches that in some way the Government of Canada is not fulfilling its obligation to ensure clean drinking water. That is simply not true.
The Government of Canada has fulfilled completely its obligation as a partner in the federation to work with those who have responsibility for delivering fresh, clean water. We have taken a number of steps and are active in a variety of ways. We are working with provincial and municipal governments in that effort.
I will identify five of these steps in the few moments available to me. First, we are contributing to the cost of maintaining appropriate water and sewage treatment facilities so that local municipalities, rural and urban, have facilities to treat water and make it suitable for human use.
Last year the federal budget identified $2 billion to be available over five years through the infrastructure program to help provinces and municipalities in this effort. When that money is leveraged by matching funds from the other two levels of government it will total over $6 billion in the coming five years. That money will be spent on infrastructure that will make the difference between water that is fit to drink and water that is not.
We heard today from the member for Saint Boniface that $2 billion of that $6 billion will be spent in western Canada and that he has already received proposals for 600 projects that relate to water and sewage treatment in western Canada.
Second, we have made a commitment, in working with provinces and municipal governments, to create the country's first building code for municipal water and waste water facilities. The code will improve the ability of municipalities to meet high standards for water quality and ensure that Canadians from coast to coast have access to comparable facilities for producing potable water.
Third, we committed in the Speech from the Throne to making clean water one of our top three environmental priorities along with clean air and conservation. We also recognize that as trustee of one of the world's largest supplies of freshwater Canada has a particular responsibility to preserve that legacy for future generations, and we shall.
Fourth, in the Speech from the Throne we committed to developing stronger national guidelines for water quality by enhancing scientific research and continuing to work with provincial partners. As part of that we promised to strengthen the role of the National Water Research Institute whose world class work provides the basis for our action in sustaining freshwater ecosystems.
Fifth, we committed to investing in advanced information systems to make better use of our land and protect surface water and groundwater from the impact of industrial and agricultural activity. Such systems would help monitor what happens on the ground and measure the impact of agricultural and industrial activity on the underlying water supply.
With those five measures the government has demonstrated that it is doing its part to help provide safe, clean water for Canadians, a responsibility all governments in the federation must share.
There has been talk opposite about the need for a national standard. Since 1983 the Government of Canada has met twice a year with provincial officials, scientists, chemists and environmentalists. Together they have developed a consensus on the level of purity for Canadian drinking water.
That consensus is reflected in national guidelines that are reviewed twice a year. The guidelines are provided to the people on the ground who inspect water and provide, furnish, maintain and operate the equipment which purifies it. The guidelines apply to all public and private water sources across the country. While the approaches taken by provinces might vary, the guidelines reflect a Canada-wide consensus on water quality.
It is unfair and wrong to suggest we do not have national standards. The guidelines reflect those standards. The process by which the guidelines are developed reflects how the country is organized and who is responsible for what. We share part of the responsibility. We do not deny that. We accept it and meet it by working with partners every year, year in and year out, to make sure the guidelines are appropriate.
The Government of Canada has clear responsibility for drinking water on first nations lands. Since 1995 my colleague, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, has invested over $400 million in first nations communities throughout Canada to make sure facilities are in place to provide fresh water.
More generally, Health Canada maintains national surveillance for infectious diseases including those linked to contaminated water. In Walkerton, Health Canada scientists led the epidemiological investigation which identified the extent of the outbreak and the sequence of events leading up to it.
Last July, Health Canada consolidated the various components of our emergency response capacity into a single entity, the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. Through the centre Health Canada is positioned to respond more quickly and effectively in an emergency.
I mention these responsibilities because I want my colleagues in the House to know that we are actively doing our share, not just today or this week but continuously.
Members should be careful before they say the issue of safe drinking water can be resolved by the adoption in parliament of a federal statute or by the imposition of a federal law even if it contains penalties. The hard reality is that life is not that simple. The hard reality is that all of us must work together and do our share if we are to produce the results we want.
There is no doubt that we could go across the country and find areas where there is room for improvement, whether it be in grade schools, primary education or in hospital administration. No one would suggest for a moment that the solution is to have the Government of Canada pass a law to improve primary or grade school education and take over that field of endeavour. The solution, as in any successful federation, is for governments to work well together in good faith. That is what motivates Health Canada and the Government of Canada.
We must continue that work. I welcome the motion which I will vote in favour of. I undertake to the member for Fundy—Royal and to the House to raise the issue with my provincial counterparts the next time we meet in order to determine their willingness to work toward establishing a safe water act. If they believe it would be helpful we shall be there to do our part.