Madam Speaker, when we speak about clean water, we are speaking about the most basic expectations of our citizens. This is not about some rare disease that may strike strangers in some far off place. This is about what our children drink every day in every part of Canada.
For most of our lives, most of our citizens have believed that our water would be clean, that it would be safe for our kids, for elderly Canadians and safe for all of us. However the water that Canadians drink today is not as safe as it should be. It is not as safe as it could be. That has been demonstrated by two separate tragedies, one last week in North Battleford, Saskatchewan and the other a year ago in Walkerton, Ontario.
For years experts have warned of the need to improve Canada's water safety. As long ago as 1990, as my colleague indicated, the green plan of the then Progressive Conservative government warned of “important gaps in the federal government's environmental legislation, particularly in regard to assuring the safety of drinking water”.
I was part of that government. The minister who launched the green plan was Lucien Bouchard. Ten years later those legislative gaps still exist. The Liberal government has sadly not treated environmental safety as the priority it should have and now the headlines report that Canadians are dying because of drinking water.
There is a broad new fear that environmental health standards have fallen. The fear is real because two things have happened together. First, there are more threats to health. Second, there is less protection for health.
The money that governments spend on protection has been cut and the factors that could contaminate water have grown. What is certain is that the sources of danger will grow as communities become more crowded, as infrastructure crumbles, grows old and is not renewed and as new elements enter the environment. If the threats to citizens grow so too does the responsibility of governments. These are matters which most citizens cannot protect on their own. Society has a clear responsibility which it is the duty of governments to exercise.
Undoubtedly, that issue compels us to ask ourselves, first, which government has to act and which one can take action.
It is a provincial jurisdiction in the first place, but the federal government also has a responsibility, which evolves from its more specific but equally important jurisdiction. As for the municipalities, they are called upon to manage several areas related to water quality and distribution.
If those governments co-operate and work hand in hand, we will have adequate water quality and be able to maintain it. However, if the various levels of government fight between themselves over matters of jurisdiction, the quality of our water will be affected and our children will suffer from it. Still more deaths will make headlines in the news media.
So let us be clear with regard to jurisdictions. Let us be as clear as we would wish our water to be. The first jurisdiction in that area belongs to provinces, but the federal government, under its criminal law power, is responsible for health protection and public security at the national level.
At present, there are only guidelines and these vary from province to province. In concrete terms, it means that the life of your children might be more at risk if they drink water in your province than that of children living in another province. We need to set common standards. We must ensure they are respected and we must do so by respecting both the rights of the provinces concerning their jurisdictions and the rights of the citizens concerning their health. This is the objective of this motion.
We must start by recognizing that there are too many deaths, that the guidelines are too weak and that this is a shared responsibility. Thus, the different levels of government must work together at establishing standards and ways to ensure these rights are being respected. Only then will these weak guidelines transform into standards that the citizens can rely on. Where the jurisdiction is provincial, the means to ensure the respect of these standards may be provincial in nature.
No one is more sensitive to constitutional issues than I. I have spent a major part of my life trying to find ways for the different levels of government of working together in a spirit of mutual respect.
Because of these efforts, we have been able, for example, to launch the Francophonie. We have invited the provinces to participate fully in negotiations toward a free trade agreement. We have entered into an agreement on acid rain, as well as other environmental initiatives. Even through all these processes, we have firmly respected provincial jurisdictions, as well as the interests of the citizens of this country.
Today, when the issue is the quality of the water that our children are drinking, are we going to hide behind the veil of jurisdictions or are we going to try to find solutions to allow governments to co-operate for the well-being of our children?
The motion respects the federal partnership. It allows enforcement. It increases protection at a time when citizens feel protection is gradually falling away. It forces the federal government, entirely within its limited jurisdiction, to stop hiding and to start leading. It gives society a chance to send a strong signal through an enforceable commitment to clean water, an enforceable commitment supported on the floor of the House of Commons of Canada.
I very much hope that Canadians who are concerned about the issue will take this opportunity to move forward on the motion and move Canada toward a situation where there will be no more deaths at North Battleford, no more deaths in Ontario and no more risk of death from the thing that Canadians should be able to count on above all else, which is the safety and the cleanliness of our drinking water.