Mr. Speaker, I rise in my place to address this important matter.
Before I go too far with what I have to say, I believe my hon. colleague's motion bears repeating. The hon. member for Toronto Centre moved:
That the House call on the Government of Canada to address on an urgent basis the needs of those First Nations communities whose members have no access to clean, running water in their homes; that action to address this disparity begin no later than spring 2012; and that the House further recognize that the absence of this basic requirement represents a continuing affront to our sense of justice and fairness as Canadians.
I thank the hon. member for putting forth this motion and raising this vitally important matter. Our government is strongly committed to the health and safety of all Canadians, whether they live on reserves or off, whether they are aboriginal or not. This remains a priority for all of us in the House.
I also want to inform all hon. members that I support this motion. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Like my hon. friend from Toronto Centre, I, too, believe the government needs to help ensure that all first nations communities have access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water. I, too, believe action should continue to be taken to ensure this kind of access. I, too, believe that the absence of safe, clean and reliable drinking water in first nations communities must be addressed.
Thankfully, our government recognizes the scope of the challenge raised in the motion. In fact, when the government assumed office five years ago, we made access to drinking water in first nations communities a national priority.
Since 2006, our government has made important and strategic infrastructure investments to support first nations in operating their water and waste water systems. We also launched a five-point plan of action for drinking water in first nations communities. In fact, our first budget contained important investments to start delivering concrete results from our plan. Moreover, by March 31, 2010, our government has invested approximately $1.25 billion in first nations water and waste water infrastructure. That investment will total approximately $2.5 billion by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Clearly, this is a government that is taking action, yet the job is not done. We continue to work with willing partners to find and implement concrete solutions to support access to safe drinking water. Our approach continues to be twofold. First, it involves determining with first nations the exact long-term infrastructure developments needed for each first nations community. Second, it involves putting in place an effective regulatory regime based on standards enshrined in law. This regulatory regime is meant to protect the integrity of our current and future infrastructure investments and safeguard access to safe drinking water in first nations communities.
This approach is based on the findings of several key reports. Let me take a few minutes to share some valuable insights from those reports and how these reports are helping our government deliver results and continue to make progress on this important issue.
To determine the exact long-term infrastructure development needed for each first nations community, we carried out a detailed national assessment of existing public and private water and water waste systems operated by first nations communities across the country. This was a comprehensive, independent, third party evaluation.
In fact, we are the first government to ever commission a national assessment of this kind. The size and scope of the assessment was unprecedented. More than 4,000 on-reserve water, waste water, well and septic systems were rated against an extensive set of criteria. The rating is based on the overall system management risk. It looks at whether system design or mechanical features are up to modern standards, for example, or if operators are fully certified.
The report gives us a more complete picture of the challenges and opportunities ahead. The national assessment will help first nations and our government focus efforts on priority areas. It will point to solutions. It will help ensure the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
In addition, our government has developed a response plan to address the findings and recommendations of the national assessment. This response focuses on three key areas of action: first, improving technologies and partnerships to ensure the best use of investments in infrastructure; second, enhancing capacity building and training; and third, putting in place legal, enforceable federal standards and protocols.
The assessment is also the government's direct response to a recent report of the Auditor General, who called on the government to do more to monitor the quality of drinking water on reserves. The Auditor General also called for a regulatory regime for on reserve drinking water and waste water systems. The Office of the Auditor General is not the only institution to make this recommendation.
In 2006, the government put together a panel of experts to identify workable options for a regulatory regime for on-reserve drinking water and waste water systems. The panel gathered testimony from representatives of first nations, provinces and territories, along with various experts in water and engineering. In its report, the panel identified three feasible regulatory options. The most sensible option was federal incorporation by reference of provincial and territorial laws, with adaptations required to meet the needs of first nations communities.
The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development echoed the panel's calls. The commissioner also made a series of recommendations. The most important was the call to create a federally regulatory regime for drinking water on reserve. Indeed, the commissioner stated flatly that until a regulatory regime compatible with that in the provinces was in place, the federal government could not ensure that first nations people living on reserves would have continued access to safe drinking water.
The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was not alone. A 2007 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples came to essentially the same conclusion. After hearing from dozens of witnesses, committee members stated bluntly in the report: “Legislation to regulate water standards on reserve is required. No one, including this committee, argues differently”.
The Senate committee report went on to make another key recommendation. The committee called on the government to undertake a comprehensive consultation process with first nations communities and organizations regarding legislative options, with a view to collaboratively developing such legislation.
That is exactly what we did. In response to this recommendation, the Government of Canada initiated an ongoing consultation process. To be precise, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada published a discussion paper and distributed it to interested parties in advance of a series of focused engagement sessions. Nearly 700 participants, including more than 500 representatives of first nations communities, were given the opportunity to provide their comments and suggestions on the proposal made by the panel experts and endorsed by the government.
This option is to incorporate, by reference, existing provincial and territorial regulations, with adaptation to meet the needs of first nations communities. No other viable option was put forward.
It is that opinion which forms the foundation of Bill S-11, the safe drinking water for first nations act. Why the law? This government understands that standards on their own are not enough. Standards must be supported by the force of law.
As a result of the dissolution of Parliament on March 26, 2011, however, Bill S-11 died in committee. I am pleased to report that the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has been dialoguing with first nations on this issue and will be introducing water regulations which will be designed to give the same protection to first nations that other Canadians have. This type of legislation would make it possible for our government to work with first nations communities to develop enforceable federal regulations, regulations that would address the provisions of safe drinking water, effective treatment of waste water and to protect sources of drinking water in first nations communities. Indeed, our government continues to make access to safe drinking water and effective waste water treatment on reserves a national priority.
As my hon. friend's motion attests, the challenge remains. On Tuesday, Ecojustice, a national charitable organization dedicated to ensuring Canadians can enjoy a healthy environment, publicized its recent report on water quality in Canada. The group's report noted the absence of drinking water legislation for first nations communities. I can assure the people at Ecojustice and all Canadians that we recognize the clear need for rigorous standards to uphold the quality of drinking water in first nations communities.
Our government is committed to introducing a federal law regarding first nations drinking water as soon as possible. I can assure Canadians that we have and continue to make important and strategic investments to improve and maintain water and waste water systems in first nations communities.
Our government is committed to working with willing partners to ensure first nations communities have access to safe drinking water. We will continue to move forward with our first nations and other partners to make waste water and water systems solutions a reality.