Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour today to speak to the motion. I compliment the Progressive Conservative Party and its leader for raising this very pressing issue.
If there is one thing of critical importance to all human beings it is the quality of our water. Access to potable safe water has been a given in society for a very long time. Canadians over the years have come to expect and perhaps take for granted that a country with a population of 32-odd million, which possesses some 11% of the world's reservoir of freshwater, would have safe drinking water. As we have seen, however, circumstances in Saskatchewan and in Walkerton have shown something very different.
I will quote a senator from the other place who said very poignantly that lack of access to safe water has become a clear and present danger to society.
How have we come to ignore that which is the essence of life on our planet? A document put out in 1987 set very clear guidelines for water quality in our country. The document said there could and must be co-operation between the federal and provincial governments in developing national standards to allow every person in Canada access to safe and potable water. Have we seen any action since 1987? No, we have not.
The government has been in power since 1993. Surely it has had an opportunity to address the issue, bring forth national standards and give Canadians confidence in the water that comes out of their taps. We have not seen that. It is now 2001 and we are sitting here trying to shake up the government to work with the provinces and develop national standards so that our drinking water is safe for everyone from coast to coast.
How bad is it? Recent reports estimate that 357 of 645 Ontario drinking water systems fail to meet even provincial standards. Twenty-five per cent of Newfoundland's water systems have serious problems, to such an extent that boiling water and relying on bottled water has become the norm. Let us imagine a province where 25% of the drinking water is unfit for human consumption. It is completely absurd.
Canadian drinking water guidelines set out safe recommended limits for various polluting substances in raw, untreated drinking water, recreational water and water used for industrial or agricultural purposes. The guidelines are designed to protect and enhance the quality of water in Canada.
However the guidelines apply only to inland surface water and groundwater and not to estuary and marine water. There are large holes in the system. Those holes need to be plugged and they needed to be plugged yesterday. Failure to do so will result in more deaths such as we have seen in Walkerton and Saskatchewan.
Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is only by the grace of God that it has not happened more often. It quite surprises me that we have not seen more outbreaks of water borne diseases in Canada.
The guidelines limit the concentration of pollutants according to their potential health effects or aesthetic appearance. However are they reasonable? Has anyone questioned whether the guidelines are safe? Should the limits be higher or lower? We do not know.
Even if the guidelines are violated and water is high in coliform, pesticides or other substances, what is the penalty? Nothing. There is no penalty because there is no mechanism to enforce the guidelines. We desperately need enforceable guidelines. What is the point of guidelines without a mechanism to enforce them?
This is not an academic issue, as we have heard today. The issue is fundamental to the health and welfare of Canadians. As a physician I know that some water borne diseases do not affect healthy adults but they certainly affect the most vulnerable in society. Water borne diseases selectively take out the most vulnerable such as children and the elderly. They are the ones who pay the price in an outbreak.
Canadian drinking water guidelines are used by provincial, territorial and federal agencies to assess water quality problems and manage competing users of water resources. However the guidelines are not law.
The government's response to this has been to put a bit of money forward. That is easy to do. It is easy to stand and devote money, but there must be a plan. We know the municipalities and provinces are responsible for this. However there must be a co-ordinated effort by all parties.
In our country, whether in regard to water quality, health care or other issues, we have fractured jurisdictions and often the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. The ministers have a great opportunity. They can bring together their provincial and municipal counterparts and develop a co-ordinated system of enforceable guidelines, based on science and fact, that will protect our society.
This is an issue of the future. Make no mistake about it. The lives of millions of Canadians will rest on it.
Over the last 10 to 15 years we have seen disturbing things in the ecosystem. There has been a massive die-off of amphibians not only in our country but around the world.
The scientific evidence of late points to a direct correlation between the die-off of amphibians and the use of pesticides. In addition to the die-off there are massive and grotesque deformities. There are frogs with eyes on the top of their heads, amphibians with multiple legs or two heads, and fishes with gross deformities. These are very serious problems.
The reason this is a bellwether, the proverbial canary in the mine, is that the skin or outer covering of amphibians is very permeable. It is not like our skin which is tougher. The skin of amphibians is permeable and absorbs substances much easier. This makes them the canary in the mine. Amphibians tend to visibly manifest the cancer causing, teratogenic and mutagenic capabilities of the substances they absorb.
We ignore that to our detriment. Epidemiological studies have shown clear health risks in communities that are close to areas with high concentrations of pesticides. Pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers are necessary but they must be used in an appropriate way. We are now seeing grave health risks in some communities near the areas where they are used.
Higher rates of birth deformities, teratogenicity, neonatal morbidity and mortality are all being observed. They are red flags waving in front of us but we are not responding. That is very serious.
A number of substances are being released into our environment that will be here not for a few days but for years or hundreds or even thousands of years. Large amounts of nucleotides or radioactive material from Russia are being bioaccumulated within our ecosystems in the north.
As a result, Inuit people and many large aquatic and terrestrial mammals have large amounts of radioactive, cancer causing and teratogenic substances within them. We see higher rates of cancer, birth deformities and neonatal morbidity and mortality in the north than in other communities. Science clearly indicates that individuals in the north are suffering because they eat mammals that bioaccumulate these dangerous substances in their bodies.
That is what is happening. We and others have warned the government for some six years about this but have seen no action. The government knows about this. It is very aware. Perhaps it feels impotent to deal with it, but it is not. The only way to deal with these issues is to work with the international community. We must deal seriously with the release of these substances into our environment. On the issue of fertilizers, we have seen changes in the pH levels of our water quality and acidification of the water as a direct result of pesticides being leached into it. As a result, a number of water tables have been polluted. If we measure the outflow of water into larger basins, we see that the concentrations are very high.
We know our farmers need good fertilizer and pesticides to give us the food we require. We have to allow them to work by using these fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides in a reasonable way. However we do not see enough studies nor action on the side of the government.
In fact, the environment commissioner has repeatedly mentioned to the government the ways in which it is falling flat on its face with respect to being the guardian of our environment. The environment commissioner, like the auditor general did with finance, has waved the flag many times. He has given specific solutions on what the government could do, and has a moral responsibility to engage in, to improve our environment. It is there in black and white.
The environment commissioner's reports have come out in black and white. They are good reports, fair reports and are constructive. We can only hope that the government will push hard and listen to what has been said in these reports and to the other signs, so it can build an environment that will be fairer and cleaner.
An issue that is very important on the west coast of British Columbia, because a large number of people rely on salmon, is what is happening to our salmon stocks, which have been decimated. We believe part of the reason for this decimation is the conditions and changes taking place with respect to the water. The water temperature is going up. As a result, there has been change in the mackerel population which is eating the salmon fry and the fingerlings. That is in part contributing to the very small numbers which are returning. It is decimating the fish populations, particularly the salmon populations, on the west coast.
Do we know why this is happening? No. We certainly have some theories that it is related to global warning. In fact the oceans are now believed to be a CO2 sink that is taking up a lot of the unrecognized carbon dioxide being released.
It is incumbent upon the government, and indeed the Minister of the Environment, to work with his provincial and municipal counterparts across the country, rather than have a balkanized system of environmental standards which benefits absolutely no one, to develop safe water for all Canadians.
Potable water is essential. It is our life blood. I can only encourage the government and say to it that we as a party together with the Progressive Conservatives and others will push hard to make sure that the government lives up to its responsibility to ensure that all Canadians will have access to potable water, such as the type we are all drinking.