Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate because, as many of my colleagues know, water issues are something in which I have a profound interest and have been working on almost since being elected in 2004. Of course, there is perhaps no more urgent water issue in this country today than the quality of drinking water available to our first nations people on first nations reserves.
It is vitally important, in a country like Canada, that no citizen living in a community, however small, be without access to potable water. It is impossible to understand how, in a country like Canada, citizens living in a community would not have access to water for sanitation. We know, and it has been said before in this House today and many times before today, that water is central to proper sanitation. Without proper sanitation, we have outbreaks of epidemics, like H1N1, because people cannot wash their hands or otherwise maintain proper sanitation. Therefore, the issue of quality drinking water and quality water for sanitation is not just a question of having access to the immediate household staple of quality water, it is a question of public health.
I must congratulate my hon. leader for sponsoring this motion today on such an important issue. The impetus for this motion comes from a report released in July 2011 called the National Assessment of First Nation Water and Wastewater Systems. Just by way of background, I will mention that the study covered 97% of first nations. Four first nations chose not to participate in the study but 97% of first nations were covered. Although I am not a statistician, I know that 97% coverage is a very strong sample size.
The study found that if we want to bring first nations drinking water up to standard, we need to spend a fair amount of money still. Even though there have been investments in the past, we need to spend $1.08 billion in construction costs and $79.8 million in non-construction costs to bring all existing systems up to INACs protocol standards. The non-construction costs would involve spending on operator training and the development of various kinds of plans.
Finally, the costs of new servicing, including construction, operation and maintenance costs over a 10 year period are estimated at $4.7 billion. As members can see, there is a need for an infusion of resources if we are to do justice by our first nations people.
I will go back to a 2005 report by the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development , which I read very carefully. From the report, we learned that 460,000 first nations people in Canada live on reserves, that Canada has about 600 first nations communities and that, of those communities, about 78,000 first nations people live in about 90 isolated communities without any year-round road access.
Providing potable water and access to water for sanitation to first nations is not an optional policy choice for the current government or any other government. The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility for the health and well-being of aboriginal Canadians living on first nations reserves. That is without dispute. This fiduciary responsibility includes ensuring that first nations communities have access to safe drinking water.
By way of information, the federal government exercises direct responsibility for first nations drinking water in those communities located south of 60, while the territorial governments do so for communities north of 60.
Again, by way of background, there are two federal departments that are the most directly involved in ensuring first nations communities have access to safe drinking water, one being what was formerly called the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, INAC, and the other being Health Canada. INAC funds the cost of building and maintaining first nations drinking water systems in communities. The department also covers the costs of operating and maintaining these systems, including the costs for training and certifying water system operators. In addition, the department tests source waters that supply first nations drinking water treatment plants. That is very important, and I will get into this a little later.
The efficacy of a water treatment plant depends, not only on the technology in that plant but also on the source water that is feeding that plant. Therefore, it is extremely important that we protect source water in Canada, specifically source water that is very close to drinking water treatment plants.
Health Canada, on the other hand, tests first nations drinking water at the tap. Health Canada works with first nations south of 60 to identify potential drinking water problems, including verification and monitoring of the overall quality of drinking water at the tap, and we are not talking about source water, and reviewing, interpreting and disseminating results to first nations.
Environment Canada is a third department. I said that there were two departments principally involved with the issue of first nations drinking water but Environment Canada is also involved. It is involved in giving advice and guidance in the area of source water protection.
A fourth department that is also involved is Public Works and Government Services Canada. Already we can see that this is a complex problem. Yes, it is a problem of money and a problem of political will but it is also a problem of the structure and the processes of government. I will come back to that a bit later.
What does Public Works and Government Services Canada do? Public Works and Government Services Canada provides Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development with technical services on the design of water treatment plants. If the government were putting out tenders to build water treatment plants, obviously this would go through Public Works and Government Services and it would supply some technical specifications. We already have four departments involved.
I mentioned money and money is important. In fact, one of the reasons that first nations were against Bill S-11 was because it proposed a regime for creating regulations to govern drinking water on first nations reserves but there did not seem to be any money attached to that law. A law without the resources to implement the law is not much of a law at all. It is just wishful thinking. I would point out that spending on first nations water needs has not kept pace with the growth of the aboriginal population in Canada.
There is another problem with government when it comes to ensuring quality drinking water on first nations reserves. Yes, there are the four departments. They have complex relationships among themselves. Yes, there is the problem of not having enough money to solve this problem. There is also the problem that it is fundamentally a scientific issue.
Water policy must be based on science. Water policy requires that the government have the scientific resources to identify problems that need to be solved. I talked about how Environment Canada looks after the protection of source waters on first nations communities but it needs to have scientists to do that job properly. What we have seen in the last few years, and even more so at an accelerated pace, is that the government does not seem to have the resources to hire scientists. In fact, the talk at Fisheries and Oceans and at Environment Canada is that not only are scientists not allowed to speak and are muzzled and discouraged from doing their work, but we see that there will probably be, as a result of budget cuts, fewer and fewer scientists working inside Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans.
The atrophied state of federal water science is a component of this problem. It is not something that we notice right off the bat. We said that it was a question of money, of political will, and, yes, it is a question of those things, but when we scratch under the surface we cannot have good water policy, whether we are talking about water on first nations reserves or any other aspect of water policy, unless we have good science.
Here is what is extremely interesting and sadly ironic. There are no laws and regulations governing the provision of drinking water in first nations communities, unlike other communities in Canada. This is a situation where the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to guarantee adequate drinking water to first nations and yet there are no laws or regulations governing the provision of drinking water in first nations communities.
What is even more ironic is that if people are nurses employed by the federal government working in a nursing station on a first nations reserve, or if they are employees of the Department of Foreign Affairs working in an embassy somewhere around the world, they are governed by regulations. The government must provide them with drinking water that is up to standard.
This is not me speaking. It was mentioned by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I will read a passage from his 2005 report:
Under the Canada Labour Code and the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations, every federally regulated employer has to provide its employees with drinking water that meets the standards set out in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. Federal employees working in First Nations communities are covered by these regulations.
Is that not ironic? Aboriginal Canadians living in these communities are not covered by regulations but federal employees working there are. I will continue with the quote:
We found that in 2002 Health Canada installed small water treatment units in nursing clinics and health stations in at least 20 First Nations communities that were regularly experiencing drinking water safety problems. This was a result of Human Resources and Development Canada intervention to ensure that federal employees working in these facilities would be provided with safe drinking water as prescribed under the Canada Labour Code.
This is an irony that cannot be allowed to stand much further. This is obviously a glaring problem.
This is a complex issue and there is a scientist, Dr. Hans Peterson, who works in the north and who has dedicated a tremendous amount of time in his career to helping first nations communities solve their drinking water problems. He has found that water filtration is by no means a simple and straightforward matter. It is not a question of just installing, plugging in, and activating a filtration unit. The kind of filtration system a community requires depends on the quality of its source water, which I mentioned earlier.
This comes back to the issue of lack of coordination. In many cases, filtration system designers, who may even be located in an engineering firm in another country, have limited knowledge of the characteristics of source water in the community in question. Obviously, this is ironic.
According to Dr. Peterson, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, which was INAC at the time, appeared less than interested in the complexities of the relationship between source water type, filtration system design, and the quality of the treated water at the tap.
In the case of a water treatment plant being built in Saskatchewan, which goes back a couple of years, Dr. Peterson stated:
--INAC’s only criteria for building a water treatment system in Saskatchewan is still an ‘engineering stamp’. To the best of SDWF’s knowledge, and in discussion with the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, engineers have also not been given the opportunity to advise INAC on the most effective systems for different source waters, as INAC is only interested in requesting bids for, and purchasing, specific conventional water treatment systems that are chosen based on the cheapest bid.
It is not just a question of money or political will, it is a question of coordination among the various government departments that have something to say about first nations drinking water.
Again I will quote Dr. Peterson, who in this particular quotation seemed to be pointing to the lack of coordination between Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. It is an old quotation. He stated:
INAC and HC do not appear to share data for source and treated waters and, as such, are unable to make sound decisions on effective treatment processes--
The list goes on and on.
There was a report published maybe three or four years ago which was published following consultations with first nations communities. What came out of that report was the recommendation that a first nations water commission be created where members of first nations could be brought together to share information relating to the provision of potable water in these communities. To my knowledge, the government has not acted on that recommendation. I think it is a good recommendation. It gets first nations communities involved in decision-making about water treatment in their communities. I would heartily recommend that the government pursue the issue and implement that recommendation.
Lastly, it is very important that the government not take the easy way out. Through legislation and regulation it should not impose provincial drinking water standards on first nations communities because not all provinces have drinking water standards that are at the level of the national drinking water guidelines. By doing so, it would skirt its federal responsibility, which would not be fair to the first nations people of the country.