Mr. Speaker, picture a black and white postcard of a toddler. His face is covered by a rash, his eyes are dark without shine, the headline is “Water is a human right” and the bottom caption reads “Do you have running water? I don't...and I live in Canada, I need your help”.
This card is part of a campaign by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to raise awareness about the lack of safe and clean drinking water on many remote first nations reserves.
Now imagine walking down a path lined by trees to the lake on the Garden Hill First Nation. This is the walk a young boy must make every second day, just so he can break a hole in the ice to draw water for his family.
The former Auditor General Sheila Fraser reported that the government had failed time and again to take measures that would improve the quality of life for first nations. The basics of life, such as adequate housing, clean drinking water, child welfare, education, are persistently and dramatically substandard. As a result, Ms. Fraser said, in her parting words to Parliament:
I am profoundly disappointed to note...that despite federal action in response to our recommendations over the years, a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted...In a country as rich as Canada, this disparity is unacceptable.
She went on to explain that on first nations reserves conditions are getting worse instead of getting better, and recommended a complete overhaul of federal tools and increased participation of first nations.
Let me provide a specific example. The home of 82-year-old Mr. Taylor, who is a diabetic and requires dialysis every few days, has no bathroom and no running water. The hole in the ice is where he draws his water. The slop pail, a bucket covered by a garbage bag serves as his facilities in his upstairs bedroom. There is an outhouse, but it is inconvenient at minus 40°C.
Not being able to wash can have much more serious health consequences than diarrhea and skin infections. Lack of running water and therefore hand washing, a means of infection control is part of the reason northern Manitoba aboriginal communities were so badly impacted during the H1N1 pandemic.
Over the former Auditor General's 10-year term, her office produced 31 audit reports on aboriginal issues. Last year Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, itself, reported there was little or no progress in the well-being of first nations communities. A gap Ms. Fraser called unacceptable.
She explained that she actually thought it was quite tragic when there is a population in this country that does not have the sword of basic services that Canadians take for granted. Ms. Fraser concluded that too many first nations people still lack clean drinking water.
The federal government has jurisdiction over water on reserves, and provides support and funding to help these communities construct, upgrade and manage on reserve water systems.
Aside from federal policies, administrative guidelines and funding arrangements, there is no regulatory regime covering the quality and safety of drinking water in first nations communities, just as there is no legislation setting out responsibilities for educating children on reserves and no funding is assured.
Bill S-11, an act respecting the safety of drinking water on first nation lands was tabled in Parliament in May 2010, and attempted to address the regulatory void. Bill S-11 would have enabled the federal government to regulate drinking water on reserves, and incorporate and adapt relevant provincial legislation for the needs of first nations communities.
Bill S-11 was met with substantial resistance by first nations groups because it infringed on their jurisdiction. Furthermore, the 2010 Auditor General report warned that it could take years before regulations under Bill S-11 could be developed and fully implemented. The bill died when the federal election was called in the spring of 2011.
Water is essential for life. No living creature can survive without it. Water is a prerequisite for human health and well-being, as well as for the preservation of the environment. Water is the lifeblood of the land and of indigenous peoples who rely upon it.
First nations have, therefore, always viewed water as a sacred trust. From time immemorial, first nations have focused their existence on water; for example, their careful selection of community sites for transportation and harvest from waters. The amount of freshwater on earth is limited and its quality is under constant strain. Preserving the quality of freshwater is important for the drinking water supply, food production and recreational water use. Water quality can be compromised by infectious agents, radiological hazards and toxic chemicals.
Today, nearly two billion people live in water-stressed areas of the world and three billion have no water within a kilometre of their homes. Every eight seconds a child dies of water-borne disease, deaths that could be easily preventable with access to clean, safe water.
The lives of indigenous peoples are intricately tied to the land and the water. As those who live closest to the land and rely most heavily upon it, indigenous peoples strongly feel the effect of water depletion, pollution and other changes. Safe water supplies, hygienic sanitation and good water management are fundamental to global health. Safe water could annually prevent 1.4 million child deaths due to diarrhea, 860,000 child deaths due to malnutrition, 500,000 deaths due to malaria and 280,000 deaths due to drowning. Almost one-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by simply reducing risks of water-borne infectious diseases through increasing access to safe drinking water and improving sanitation, hygiene and water management.
There are many examples of water tragedies in Canada. For example, in 2000, seven people died in the community of Walkerton, Ontario, when their drinking water was contaminated with E. coli. However, it is aboriginal communities that have been disproportionately affected by the water crisis.
Despite repeated government pledges to ensure first nations have access to clean drinking water, their water is still often contaminated. The former auditor general, Sheila Fraser, reported that although the federal government had drafted legislation to ensure water safety, concrete changes were years away.
Most disturbing still is the fact that water quality testing is being undertaken only sporadically and key information is not being shared. More than half of reserves' drinking water systems are at risk. This past summer a national study of nearly 600 drinking water and waste water systems on first nations found that nearly three-quarters were classified at medium or high risk of not meeting safety standards. Specifically, over one-third were classified in the high-risk category.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said that the report was identifying risk and stressed that the findings did not mean water was unfit to drink. I do not want to take a plane that has a high risk of not touching down, just as I do not want to drink water that has a high risk of not meeting safety standards. Thirty per cent of the high risk was from either the source water or the design. The rest was all due to operation, monitoring and reporting. I, therefore, would ask what concrete actions the government has taken to increase training, monitoring and reporting, and what moneys have been made available to pay for these urgent activities.
The world is waking up to the water and sanitation crisis. The lack of access to clean water is one of the greatest human rights violations in the world. We have the millennium development goals, with an aim to reduce, by half by 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. We are in the midst of the United Nations water for life decade, a decade of action to promote efforts to fulfill international commitments made on water and water-related issues by 2015.
When will the government address the water and sanitation crisis in our own country? Specifically, how will the government raise awareness about the water crisis? Action starts with awareness. How will the government undertake meaningful consultation on matters affecting first nations rights with respect to water and waste water? How will the government consult and work with first nations to address the resource gap? Will the government provide adequate financial resources to regions to conduct a thorough impact analysis to determine the financial, policy development and technical needs for each region?
In 2006, the expert panel on safe drinking water for first nations found that the federal government had never provided adequate funding to first nations to ensure that water quality standards on reserves could improve.
I want to make it very clear that our party will not support legislation on safe drinking water that is introduced without an implementation plan for additional resourcing that fully addresses the deficiencies identified in the national assessment of first nations water and waste water systems.
The government must collaborate with first nations and obtain their free, prior and informed consent on the range of regulatory options regarding safe drinking water identified by the expert panel on drinking water for first nations before the reintroduction of legislation.
The United Nations has recognized water and sanitation as a human right. On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly agreed to a resolution declaring human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. The resolution had 122 countries vote in its favour, while 41 countries, including Canada, abstained.
At the very time of the resolution, more than 100 boil water advisories were in effect on reserves and, for another 49 first nations communities, boiling water did not make the water safe enough for consumption. As of July 2011, there were 126 first nations communities across Canada under a drinking water advisory, an increase from 106 communities in 2008. As of October 31, 2011, there were 124 first nations communities across Canada under a drinking water advisory.
The MKO grand chief, David Harper, clearly told a Senate committee in February 2011 that the lack of running water in more than 1,000 homes in northern Manitoba was a violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He explained that his people were living in third world conditions, that families in the Island Lake region of Manitoba had less water every day than people in refugee camps.
People in the Island Lake region survive on just 10 litres per day, usually carried by family members in pails from local water pipes. Additional water comes untreated from lakes and rivers that have tested positive for contamination, including E. coli.
Just this week, Ecojustice confirmed earlier findings, namely, “although billions have been spent and new legislation has been proposed, water quality in first nations communities is still far below that of off reserve communities and it shows few signs of improving”. Specifically, Ecojustice issued a report card on water and its lowest mark was awarded to the federal government, in part for the local improvement in water quality in first nations communities.
Global assessments indicate that the annual cost of not addressing water and sanitation amounts to 1.8 million deaths, health care costs of $7 billion U.S. to health institutions, $340 million U.S. to individual households and an opportunity cost of time lost in illness and care of $63 billion U.S.
For a number of decades, water and sanitation issues were considered synonymous with disease and poverty. Inadequate water supplies, unsafe water resources, poor water management and inequitable access translated into time loss, financial cost, a burden of disease and high health care costs.
Over the past 15 years, this thinking has considerably changed. Water and sanitation issues are now considered an engine for development. Universal access to improved water supply, safe water resources and water resource management all have the potential to contribute to time and financial savings, better health and averted disease costs, and economically productive populations.
As discussed earlier, infectious water-related diseases are a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. It is important to remember that newly recognized pathogens and new strains of established pathogens are being discovered and present additional challenges to both the water and public health sectors. For example, between 1972 and 1999, 35 new agents of disease were discovered and many more have re-emerged. Some of these pathogens may be transmitted by water.
Canada should be aggressively pursuing new ways to protect public health by reducing contaminants in the drinking water for all Canadians by protecting drinking water resources, modernizing the tools available to communities to meet their clean water requirements and providing affordable clean water services in rural communities.
It is time for the Government of Canada to implement a comprehensive national water strategy that upgrades national drinking water standards. In April 2008, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that there were 1,766 boil water advisories currently in place in Canadian municipalities, not including first nations communities.
Of the roughly 90,000 houses on reserves in 2008, approximately 2,100 homes had no water service and 4,700 had no sewage service.
Advisories are intended to be a precautionary measure in the public health tool kit. However, given the fact that some have been in place for at least five years, they are apparently being used as a band-aid solution.
As part of a national strategy for water, the government might consider the urgent need for infrastructure investment, committed federal funding for municipalities and first nations communities to upgrade public water utilities, protection and preservation of water for all forms of life and for future generations, and federal backstop legislation to keep water in its basins and effectively ban bulk water exports.
Clean water is one of life's most basic needs and, therefore, it is unthinkable that communities are told to manage without it. The fact that over 100 first nations communities cannot drink their water is a national disgrace. One chief asked,: “I wonder how different the response would have been if the residents of Toronto were without access to water?”.
I will finish by asking whether hon. members worry about the safety of their drinking water.
It is time that everyone in this chamber joined with first nations in demanding accountability and the right to safe drinking water. Moreover, it is time that the federal government be held accountable for its poor water protection grade.