House of Commons Hansard #174 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was nation.


Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

3:40 p.m.


John Duncan Conservative Vancouver Island North, BC

Mr. Speaker, I certainly was not expecting that question on this bill. I am not aware of those statements. This is part of an environmental assessment process we have not even come to yet with Kinder Morgan. Therefore, that is an inappropriate question and it would be inappropriate for me to respond at this time.

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

3:40 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill S-8, An Act respecting the safety of drinking water on First Nation lands. I am going to start differently than I planned because I want to respond to something that both the minister and the parliamentary secretary addressed in their speeches or their questions.

I want to start with a quote from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Article 18 says:

Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decisionmaking institutions.

Article 19 says:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.

It was interesting to hear people describe the consultation process as engagement. It is an interesting twist of words, because when we talk about full, prior and informed consent, I am sure that many nations would argue that engagement does not equal full, prior and informed consent. I want to turn for a moment to some comments about the engagement or so-called consultation process.

The Safe Drinking Water Foundation, in a position statement it issued on April 14, 2009, talked about this engagement process. It said that few first nations voices were heard at the engagement sessions, but enough were present that INAC was able to claim that they were engaged. It said that many first nations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta did not receive their engagement session invitation packages in sufficient time for people to attend the sessions. For example, George Gordon First Nation received its package on January 25 at noon when the engagement session was taking place the following day in Saskatoon, three hours away. Of course, we know what winter road conditions can be like in Canada at that time of year, so it adds an additional stress.

In addition, the Safe Drinking Water Foundation said that civil servants dominated conversations in each discussion group, offered incomplete and inaccurate information and failed to relay first nations' concerns to the larger audience. The INAC official report omitted all of that.

Consultation is all in the eye of the beholder. There are some guidelines that first nations have proposed in terms of what meaningful consultation would look like. I have been hearing from people who do not feel this process fulfilled that responsibility to consult.

I want to turn to the legislative summary of the safe drinking water first nations act that was put out by the Parliamentary Library so that people understand what it is we are talking about today. In the legislative summary it says:

The bill provides for the development of federal regulations governing the provision of drinking water, water quality standards and the disposal of waste water in First Nations communities...the bill also establishes that federal regulations developed in this regard may incorporate, by reference, provincial regulations governing drinking water and waste water in First Nations communities.

It goes on to say:

The delivery of safe drinking water to on-reserve First Nations communities is critical to the health and safety of the communities’ residents. Access to safe, clean, potable water is also closely tied to the economic viability of individual communities. For more than a decade, research has indicated that many First Nations communities lack adequate access to safe drinking water. A 2001–2002 assessment found that the quality of almost three quarters of drinking water systems in First Nations’ communities were at significant risk.

I know some of those numbers have changed since then and I will talk about the waste water and drinking water assessments that the government commissioned.

Later on in the legislative summary it indicated some key challenges. It says:

In addition to the absence of a regulatory framework and the lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities...core issues relating to the provision of safe drinking water on reserves include the high costs of equipment for, and construction and maintenance of, facilities in remote locations; infrastructure that is either obsolete, entirely absent or of low quality; limited local capacity and ability to retain qualified or certified operators; and the lack of resources to properly fund water and waste water system operation and maintenance.

All of us in the House would agree that there are significant challenges on first nation reserves about access to safe quality drinking water and to the functioning of the waste water treatment systems.

In my own riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan there is the St'át'imc reserve which butts up against the municipality of Nanaimo. We literally have a reserve that is in an urban area and there has just recently been an agreement to allow the extension of the water system, but the reserve has been there for decades.

The ability of the residents to engage in economic development on their recognized traditional lands has been hampered by the fact that they do not have access to clean water. In fact, on one of the reserves they are trekking in water. This is a reserve right beside the city of Nanaimo. We are not talking about some remote reserve hundreds of miles away that is accessible by air only, or ice road, or sealift.

Therefore, this is not just a rural and remote community problem. There are reserves close to urban areas that do not have the infrastructure to not only supply safe drinking water, but to enable them to engage in the economy in a more meaningful way.

Back in 2005, the report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development also highlighted the problem of drinking water for first nation communities. I want to touch on a couple of points here.

The report noted that when it came to the safety of drinking water:

—residents of First Nations communities do not benefit from a level of protection comparable to that of people who live off reserves.

It goes on to say that:

Despite the hundreds of millions in federal funds invested, a significant proportion of drinking water systems in first nation communities continue to deliver drinking water whose quality or safety is at risk. Although access to drinking water has improved, the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of many water systems is still deficient. Moreover, to a significant extent, the success of the First Nations Water Management Strategy depends on INAC and Health Canada addressing the management weaknesses we have noted.

The report talks about a number of management weaknesses between the departments. It goes on to say:

The technical help available to First Nations to support and develop their capacity to deliver safe drinking water is fragmented. Given that most First Nations communities have fewer than 500 residents, and that providing drinking water has become more complex, the development of institutions that can provide ongoing technical support is critical to a continuing supply of safe drinking water for these communities.

In part, many first nation communities have relied on tribal councils to help them with technical advice and organizational administration. In the last round of budget cuts, we saw tribal councils had their funding cut. That is going to significantly impact on some of these smaller communities' ability to deal with some of these very complex issues.

The report, “Drinking Water on First Nations Communities” also highlighted some challenges . It is important to state this because it is a very complex problem. It says about location:

Many First Nations are located on the Canadian Shield, or other difficult terrain, making it technically difficult and costly to provide water services. Some reserves are isolated and can be accessed by roads only in winter; some have limited access to electricity or other forms of energy. Water sources are often located off reserves, and it is difficult for First Nations to protect them.

Interestingly, on the difficulty of protecting water, we have just seen a number of waterways no longer included in the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Many of those waterways on first nation reserves are no longer protected. Did the department do an analysis of what this change in the Navigable Waters Protection Act would have in the context of this legislation? I understand from a briefing from government officials that it has not been done.

It is a very important question. If first nations cannot protect their waters by whatever means available to them, one questions how they would improve the quality of the drinking water.

Other challenges include accountability. The report says:

Federal departments set requirements that make First Nations responsible for providing day-to-day drinking water. It is not clear who is ultimately accountable for the safety of drinking water.

Costs and financing...It is difficult to find and retain operators.

Technical standards. It is not clear which standards are applicable. Provincial guidelines and regulations on drinking water are to be applied except when less stringent than federal standards.

The population growth on reserves has been noted in report after report. This report says that:

On-reserve population is estimated to increase by 230,000 people between 2004 and 2021. It is difficult to estimate population growth and economic development in each community to plan water systems that can meet drinking water needs for 10 to 20 years.

It is a very challenging environment that we are operating in.

In the Report of the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, there was a number of matters that it highlighted.

First, it states:

Pursuing “laws of general application” is too uncertain

If it could be established that provincial laws of general application applied to Indian reserves, legal frameworks would be instantly in place and a great deal of consultative and Parliamentary process avoided. However, in the view of legal counsel to the panel, applying provincial drinking water and wastewater law as a law of general application is “fraught with such uncertainty that it is neither a viable nor effective option.”

We know that provincial laws differ from province to province so there will be a very uneven level of water quality standards from province to province, depending on which province the first nation resides.

It report says that before there is any legislation that there are preconditions that must be in place before legislation moves forward. The first is, “Provide resources, discuss and deal with high risks”. It says:

The federal government must close the resource gap

First, and most critically, it is not credible to go forward with any regulatory regime without adequate capacity to satisfy the regulatory requirements. While it is tempting to assume that putting a regulatory regime in place would reduce the dangers associated with water systems, exactly the opposite might happen. This is because creating and enforcing a regulatory regime would take time, attention and money that might be better invested in systems, operators, management and governance.

But the problem is more fundamental than the resources that would be lost to creating a regulatory regime. The underlying issue is that the federal government has never provided adequate funding to meet the 1977 policy commitment of comparable facilities on reserve....If funding were supplemented to cover only the costs of a regulatory regime, the gap would continue.

We therefore see it as a precondition to moving forward on any of the viable options that the federal government must finally close the resource gap. It must provide, over a reasonable period, the funding needed to ensure that the quality of First Nations water and wastewater is at least as good as that in similar communities and that systems are properly run and maintained.

That is a precondition.

It also goes on to say that discussion with first nations is essential. It says:

The second precondition is the need for the federal government to assess whether it has a legal duty to consult with First Nations affected by any of the three options. This duty, according to the Supreme Court arises “when the Crown has knowledge, real or constructive, of the potential existence of the aboriginal right or title and contemplates conduct that might adversely affect it.”

As the minister pointed out, it indicates in the preamble that it will work with first nations, but nowhere is that working relationship defined. Because of the ongoing mistrust with the government, that relationship needs to be clearly spelled out about how first nations will be consulted, not just engaged, in the development of these regulations, as we saw from other consultative processes.

I spoke this morning to Bill S-2 about the so-called consultative process that was conducted with matrimonial real property. Wendy Grant-John tabled a very thorough report and many of the critical recommendations were disregarded when Bill S-2 was brought forward. Therefore, not only must the consultation process be outlined and resources attached to it, but there must be a commitment that when that consultation process is completed, the recommendations that come forward be actually incorporated into the regulations.

Finally, one of the other preconditions was, “Deal with high-risk communities immediately”. It says:

—any of the options would take time – probably several years – to reach the ultimate goal of safer drinking water for all First Nations. In the meantime, however, many reserve residents face serious risks from the drinking water available to them, sometimes from collective systems but...often from individual wells or other water sources.

It talks about the fact that we cannot just wait for the regulations to be developed or legislation to move forward. Rather we have to actually deal with the high-risk systems.

I want to touch briefly on the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems. As I indicated earlier, in early 2000 a significant number of wastewater systems and water quality systems were at risk. That number has come down. I will give the government credit to the extent to which it has invested money over the years, so the numbers have reduced, but we know it has not been enough.

To provide a couple of really important numbers on this, nationally 571 of the 587 first nations, 97%, participated in the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems study. That is important.

It says that “12 First Nations have no active infrastructure on reserve lands, in some cases [this was] as a result of recent or ongoing land claim settlements”.

Under the heading “Individual Systems”, the document states that “[a]n assessment was completed for approximately 5% of the individual well and septic systems”. Some of these numbers are still staggering. It goes on to say:

36% of the individual wells sampled did not meet the requirements of the GCDWQ for a health related parameter (i.e. arsenic, barium, bacteriological, etc.) and 75% did not meet the GCDWQ for an aesthetic parameter (i.e. hardness, sodium, iron, manganese, etc.). Approximately 47% of the septic systems assessed had operational concerns identified, which were usually attributed to limited maintenance (not pumping out septic tank regularly), leaching beds installed in inappropriate soils and age....

It then states, “A risk assessment has been completed for each water and wastewater system according to the INAC Risk Level Evaluation Guidelines”. Overall, of the 807 water systems inspected, 39% were categorized as high overall risk, 34% were categorized as medium overall risk and 27% were categorized as low overall risk. Therefore, 73% of the systems have some level of risk.

There have been some improvements. We know the number of boil-water advisories has decreased. However, there are still significant problems with the water systems.

That leads me to a comment that I made earlier around the need to invest in the capacity for these water systems for first nations. Later on in the report, it did indicate:

Small water systems are generally found to have a higher risk rating than larger water systems. In many cases, these small facilities were not designed to meet current protocols and do not have the same level of resources available for operation as larger systems. In addition, the overall risk of a system appears to increase with remoteness.

Of the high risk systems, 150 systems serving 16% of the on-reserve population are flagged as high risk as a result of a bacteriological exceedance.

Of the 532 waste water systems inspected, 14% were categorized as high overall risk and 51% were categorized as medium overall risk. Again, what we are seeing is that there continues to be significant risk attached to both the water quality and to the waste water systems.

The report also made an estimate about what was required to upgrade to meet the protocol. The report said, “The total estimated construction cost to meet protocol is $1.08 billion”. That is a lot of money. However, we are talking about people's health and safety. It says:

[These] requirements...are considered to be related to health and safety, providing minimum levels of treatment, providing firm capacity, standby power and best management practices.

Members can see that the scope and the magnitude of the problem are very serious.

Groundwater is an important source and in a paper that was put forward by Sarah Morales, a submission to Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water, she pointed out that it is estimated that 750,000 people in British Columbia, and this is not just first nations, rely on groundwater as their drinking source. She said that protection of this drinking water source had become a major issue in British Columbia where the aquifers, underground sources of water, and so on, were at risk. She also said that the bacteriological contamination of private domestic wells was an issue across the province.

Members can see how important it is for whatever regulation or legislation we put in place to be effective in terms of dealing with water quality. It is also important that first nations have the resources they require to construct and maintain, and to train their operators, and that there is a meaningful consultation in the development of these regulations.

Based on what we have before us, unless there is some serious amendment to this piece of legislation, New Democrats will not be able to support it.

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4 p.m.


David Wilks Conservative Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Mr. Speaker, during the member's speech she referred to the capacity on first nations with regard to water and waste water. There was some inference that depending on the size of the capacity of the water or waste water system, it would determine how well that water or waste water could be treated.

The member is well aware that the capacity of water and waste water is not based upon how good the system is, but upon how good the system was that was put in. Would she agree that most waste water systems that are put in first nations communities today are to the same standard as anywhere else in Canada and that not one is substandard?

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, that is an interesting question. There has been a great deal of discussion about the systems that have been installed in various communities. I am sorry if the member thought I was implying there were substandard systems installed. I was not implying that. The challenge is that sometimes systems are installed that are not actually appropriate for the size of the community. There are different kinds of systems.

In one community I visited, a very sophisticated system had been installed that was inappropriate for the size of the community. There was a huge cost to the community to operate that system in terms of chemicals, the operator training that was required and whatnot. It was not that it was a substandard system. It was a system that was inappropriate for that community.

The bigger challenge is that there are significant numbers of communities at risk, either because they do not have the training that is required or there is not appropriate monitoring. Sometimes there are well systems, whether community wells or individual wells, and there are some questions about the kinds of monitoring that goes on. If some of these wells fail, communities cannot afford to replace them.

In one of the communities I visited, the wells were all contaminated and the community is currently having to truck in water. It is more about whether the resources are available to operate, maintain and construct new facilities as appropriate.

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4 p.m.


Chris Charlton NDP Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to commend my colleague on an excellent speech this afternoon. She has much more expertise in this area than I do and I hope she will forgive me.

I have a hard time believing the minister because he has such a long record of broken promises. Members will know that water is an internationally recognized human right. We have also made commitments to the rights of indigenous people, but the Conservative government still continues to ignore the rights of Canada's first nation communities.

A study commissioned by this very government found that an investment of $5 billion over 10 years is needed with an immediate investment of $1.2 billion. However, we are seeing in the bill that the government has ignored the recommendation from the Assembly of First Nations dealing with safe drinking water and is still advocating for incorporation by reference of provincial laws, effectively placing much of the responsibility with the provinces.

I have to ask myself what we are doing here. How much is this going to cost the provinces? We know the federal government is not coming to the table to pony up. I wonder if my colleague would elaborate on what this means for provinces such as hers, British Columbia, and provinces right across the country.

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4:05 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, an analysis done by Koch Thornton on March 27, 2012, made a couple of observations about the problems with Bill S-8. One of them, of course, was that there is no new funding. It said:

The implementation of a complex source-to-tap water regulation regime, as contemplated by Bill S-8, is an enormous undertaking.

Then it went on to talk about how much money that would cost. It does acknowledge that Bill S-8 cannot provide for new government spending, but it indicates that what should have happened was that an appropriation bill should have also been tabled in order to indicate the government's commitment to the funding that is required.

The other thing the member for Hamilton Mountain talked about was inherent rights. This memorandum also talks about the failure to respect inherent aboriginal treaty rights and that the original bill, Bill S-11, took a very top-down approach. It talked about the abrogation and derogation clauses, but also about how the preamble does not cover some of the issues around what that consultation process would look like for including first nations.

On the whole issue of provincial regulation, from my understanding of it, it is not so much that this is a downloading for provincial governments in terms of cost but a reconciliation of standards at the provincial level. That would mean that even though the federal government has a nation-to-nation responsibility for first nations, it is actually saying, “Where you live will determine what your water quality standards are”.

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4:05 p.m.

Kenora Ontario


Greg Rickford ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I appreciated the hon. member's presentation. Obviously, there are a few things we do not agree on. However, what is clear is that we agree on a couple of things.

First, with regard to capacity, we know that reporting, monitoring and maintenance is an absolutely essential facet to any comprehensive plan to address these issues and with that, an ongoing investment in infrastructure.

I appreciate the member's recognition and acknowledgement that this government has made those key investments to infrastructure and so, the final piece in this three-pronged response would be a piece of legislation.

She mentioned earlier some high-risk statistics. It is worth pointing out that some of those high-risk statistics are high-risk communities in one province but may not be in a high-risk category in another province. This depends, of course, upon a couple of key things. First, what those provincial standards are and what systems they use or do not use that constitute high risk.

As a practical matter, in terms of the need for a piece of legislation, Bill S-8 would fill that legal and regulatory vacuum. That is to say that the federal government and the first nation communities, for the first time ever, would bring together the three essential components: the capacity piece, reporting, monitoring and maintenance; the ongoing investment in infrastructure; and the need to create a regulatory framework so that first nation communities and the federal government of Canada can work together.

Would she agree that the legislation would do that and would also address the discrepancies between high risk as they are different or may be different from one jurisdiction to the other, be it a province or a territory?

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4:05 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, my understanding is, and this is again from the national assessment of first nations report, that:

A risk assessment has been completed for each water and wastewater system according to the INAC Risk Level Evaluation Guidelines.

My understanding is that they used the INAC not the provincial guidelines.

With regard to infrastructure, what the risk assessment did identify was that there were still serious infrastructure deficits in the country. The bill before us, and as I pointed out the Senate could not tie money into the bill, has no commitment going forward for the water and waste water systems .

The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems, in its summary of recommendations, clearly indicated that infrastructure investment was absolutely required. It included:

—works and measures associated with ensuring current systems meet the requirements of the various protocols, thereby reducing the risk associated with these systems; [and] the approach to addressing future servicing needs associated with the projected growth in First Nation communities.

We are not seeing that.

I indicated that over the next several years we are going to see an enormous growth in first nation communities and yet, we do not see a plan of action moving forward that would accommodate this growth in population. We already have systems that are overloaded and at risk and now we are going to add population growth.

It is essential that, if we are going to move forward with legislation, we actually commit to put the resources in place to ensure that first nations can meet those commitments.

One of the concerns with this piece of legislation is that there would be a downloading to chiefs and councils and to communities for the liability and for the cost of these systems. They may be held to a standard that they simply cannot achieve because they do not have the resources to do it.

Safe Drinking Water for First Nations ActGovernment Orders

4:10 p.m.


Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, this is a hugely important topic that we are discussing this afternoon. I do not think that there is anyone in this chamber who does not believe that the question of unsafe drinking water has been a chronic problem and an embarrassment to Canada. Many first nation communities, especially northern and rural communities, are still living in third world conditions here in Canada in 2012.

On September 30, 2012, 116 first nations communities throughout Canada were still subject to a drinking water advisory.

This is clearly unacceptable and requires immediate action.

As National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Assembly of First Nations, said, “Access to safe, potable water and sanitation is a basic human right”. Unfortunately, the bill would simply provide for the development of federal regulations governing the provision of drinking water, water quality standards and the disposal of waste water in first nation communities.

According to every report addressing the tragic situation of water on reserve, the massive infrastructure deficit—and problems with capacity—must first be addressed before any legislation is passed.

I remember visiting the communities in northern Manitoba a little more than two years ago during the outbreak of H1N1. In Garden Hill, only 50% of the community had access to safe drinking water. In Wasagamack, only 20% of the homes had access to safe drinking water, and those are the homes on the footprint of the health unit. There are federal labour laws that insist people working in that space have to have clean drinking water.

Unfortunately, this bill does not provide any additional resources or funding to address this critical capacity gap in infrastructure, nor in training. Further, there are serious concerns about the lack of real consultation with first nations during the development of the legislation, infringements on first nations jurisdiction and the inadequacy of the non-derogation clause currently in the bill.

The government's own national assessment on first nations water and waste waster systems, released on July 14, 2011, identified 314 water systems as high risk. It is interesting that the report was ready in April but somehow ended up delayed in order to not actually influence the election of 2011. The majority of high-risk systems served a small population, and water systems in remote communities were 2.5 times more likely be at high risk than low risk.

Now, more than a year after the release of that report on the national assessment on first nations water and waste water systems, which shows 73% of reserve water systems at high or medium risk, the Conservatives have failed to make any real progress toward the right of every first nations community to clean, safe, running water. As previously noted, as of September 30, 2012, there were still 116 first nations communities across Canada under a drinking water advisory. This is simply unacceptable.

I want to remind this Chamber that some of the communities that do not have drinking water at all and have to truck bottles of water to each home are not included in those statistics.

The Assembly of First Nations estimates that it will cost approximately $6.6 billion over 10 years to address this deficit. The 2012 federal budget allocated $33.8 million over two years for first nations water systems and wastewater infrastructure. This level of funding will perpetuate the status quo from previous years and is grossly inadequate.

“The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems” said it would cost $1.08 billion to bring everything up to protocol immediately. The government's own estimates identify a $5.8 billion funding shortfall to deal with the first nations water and waste water capacity gap.

After the release of the national report on September 13, 2011, I wrote to the minister with respect to what we thought was impending legislation on water and waste water management. I quote:

I am writing to you on behalf of Liberal Leader Bob Rae and my Liberal colleagues in the Senate and House of Commons to convey the position of our caucus regarding the government's approach to creating a regulatory regime for drinking water for First Nations on reserve. Our position [which has not changed] has two main points:

First, Liberals will not support any 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 (prepared by Neegan Burnside Ltd., April 2011). There is a clear consensus that the resource gap must be addressed as a precondition to any regulatory regime. The Report of the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations (November 2006) states unequivocally that “it is not credible to go forward with any regulatory regime without adequate capacity to satisfy the regulatory requirements..”. This precondition was repeated by witnesses at the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples during its study of Bill S-11, An Act respecting the safety of drinking water on first nations lands, in spring of 2011.

Second, the government must collaborate with First Nations and obtain their free, prior and informed consent [as stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People] on the range of regulatory options regarding safe drinking water identified by the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations before the re-introduction of legislation. This approach is consistent with the Crown's obligation under the law, existing treaties and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We went on to say:

It is essential that the concerns raised in this letter are fully addressed in the government's policy on safe drinking water for First Nations. The body of survey data, research and parliamentary testimony on this matter are a clear guide on what must be done. It is up to the government to adopt a new approach of collaboration and mutual accountability—one that we believe will surely have better results for the health and well-being of First Nation citizens.

That was the letter we sent September 13, 2011, and we have not changed our minds.

A year ago, in November 2011, the Conservative government supported the Liberal Party motion introduced in the House of Commons calling on the government 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. Yet, the government has still not moved to resolve this deplorable situation a year later.

The 2012 federal budget allocated a measly $330.8 million over two years for first nations water infrastructure. However, this money simply maintained the status quo from the previous year and was far from what is required. The Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations was clear, and I will say it again. It is not credible to go forward with any regulatory regime without adequate capacity to satisfy the regulatory requirements.

According to that report, regulation alone will not ensure safe drinking water. Any regulations must be accompanied by the adequate investment in human resources and physical assets. Yet, the government is content to impose standards and regulation on first nations regarding water and waste water treatment without providing the required investment in physical assets or capacity-building assistance to deal with the problem.

Where are the additional resources and funding to address the capacity gap? Where is the credible plan to bring first nations water systems up to a level comparable with other Canadian communities and the plan to keep them there, meaning the adequate training to keep those systems working after they have been installed? Where is the credible plan to have enough training and certification that the first nations themselves can design?

When I visited the Beausoleil First Nation in your riding, Mr. Speaker, I heard the story of unacceptable waits for a membrane just to fix a state-of-the-art treatment plant. There was worry after a lightning storm. There were fully qualified and very experienced 20-year veterans, who were unable to step into the water treatment plant after an electrical storm because they had not met the criteria. Even though in any oral exam these people were encyclopedic about the microbiology and the planning of it, they had to wait until the next morning for the first ferry for someone from the mainland to come along, to even walk into the plant.

It is ridiculous that we cannot find a system that allows people to work who know how to do the things that need to be done for their people. They end up on a boil water advisory because of that gap. It is just totally unacceptable and shows that no one is listening to these people as to what it takes to meet their needs.

The government must immediately target sufficient financial resources to close the capacity gap for first nations, in terms of both infrastructure and training regarding water and waste water systems on first nations land. Most of all, it must listen to first nations themselves and involve them in the planning for the placement of these projects as well as the training and certification.

There is no question that the goal of the bill is right. We want to address health and safety issues on reserve lands and certain other lands, by providing for regulations and waste water. Unfortunately, we believe the work has not been done in developing the kinds of regulations that are required. The regulations, on a province-to-province basis, to mirror existing provincial regulatory schemes, may not work all of the time. First nations must be consulted this time.

Despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric at the recent Crown–first nations gathering about resetting the relationship, the Conservative government has shown a total disregard for the rights of indigenous people. The government has used the same flawed approach on first nations accountability and matrimonial real property without discussions on the specifics of the bill with stakeholders or political parties before tabling.

Numerous witnesses who appeared before the Senate committee said that they were frustrated that the government did not consult the first nations regarding the drafting of this bill.

Introduced in the Senate in May 2010, Bill S-11, Safe Drinking Water for First Nations act, was sharply criticized by first nations and NGOs for ignoring the expert panel recommendations and for claiming sweeping jurisdiction without consultation.

Bill S-8 has most of the same flaws as its predecessor and does not seem to have taken first nations concerns into account. Consultation requires both a substantive dialogue and that the government listen and, when appropriate, incorporate what it hears into its approach. Consultation is not an information session, as we have heard time and time again, legislation after legislation, by the government. How can the government cite The Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations as the prime example of its consultation process and then move forward with a regulatory regime without a plan to deal with capacity issues for implementation? Consultation is of no use if the government simply disregards what it hears.

It is also unacceptable that the current non-derogation clause in the bill still expressly allows for the abrogation or derogation of aboriginal and treaty rights.

It is clear that the legislation completely misses the mark and fails to deal with the real issues underscoring first nations access to clean, safe drinking water. Until the government comes forward with a credible plan to deal with the huge shortfall in funding for needed infrastructure and the training required to further develop the operational capacity within communities to maintain that infrastructure, we are not going to tackle this national disgrace.

That is what the government's own expert panel has told it. That is what first nations is telling it. It is time for the government to listen.

It is with sadness, I remind the House, that it was seven years ago when the Kelowna accord was signed, after 18 months of work with first nations and provinces and territories. Five billion dollars was assigned to close the gap, and then the agreement was torn up as soon as this government came to office. We are seven years behind where we could have begun to address the problem with that money that was expressly for these purposes.

This afternoon I asked the minister whether we could expect to see in budget 2013 the kinds of dollars the Conservatives' own expert panels stated would be necessary to fix this problem.

To me, a strategy must be what, by when and how. My question for the government and the minister, accordingly, is when will 100% of first nations homes in 100% of communities have the same access to safe and potable drinking water and to waste water management as other Canadians in all communities and municipalities in this country?

I implore this House to actually call upon the government to put in place the dollars necessary to meet the objectives of the bill. Otherwise the bill is totally useless.

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4:25 p.m.


Ray Boughen Conservative Palliser, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have just a couple of observations. First, the Government of Canada also initiated a national assessment of first nations' water and waste water systems, resulting in the most rigorous, comprehensive and independent report of its kind. The assessment released on July 4, 2011 showed that the majority of risk is due to capacity issues, although infrastructure issues and lack of enforceable standards are also a factor.

Departmental officials, first nations and other stakeholders are encouraged by the recommendations and the next step. Funding is only part of the solution to address the provision of safe drinking water on reserve. Enforced regulations are also necessary to protect the health and safety of first nations.

The national assessment and numerous other reports have addressed the need for water and waste water regulatory regimes and standards on reserve. That is why the introduction of safe drinking water legislation remains a priority for the Government of Canada, and it is our intention to introduce the bill during the fall sitting of Parliament.

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4:25 p.m.


Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think the member actually made my point, which was that the panel said that we cannot go forward without the dollars to build the capacity to do this, both for infrastructure and the training to keep that infrastructure running.

I am still not sure. I understand that the parliamentary secretary asked that member to get this on the record, but really, the question he is asking supports the view on this side of the House that no regulations will work unless there are the dollars for the capacity and the training needed to meet the objectives of the bill.

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4:25 p.m.


Alain Giguère NDP Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, the member for St. Paul's spoke eloquently and from the heart. The problem is that the Liberal Party of Canada was in power. The problems with drinking water did not occur overnight. They did not suddenly appear when the Conservative government got elected. These problems keep resurfacing, and have been around for some time. It is perhaps time for this country called Canada to meet its obligations. Political parties should not only talk about these issues when they are in opposition, they must take action when they are in power.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Party of Canada left a terrible legacy, that of the three wise monkeys: speak no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil. The Senate is the perfect example of this—just look at this bill.

Can the member for St. Paul's tell us whether she is going to walk the talk?

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4:30 p.m.


Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, I agree entirely with the member. This is a non-partisan issue. The history of our aboriginal people is a shared history among all Canadians and a shared history among all political parties.

I remember the Kelowna accord. It was a start. It involved 18 months of consultations between the provinces, territories, and aboriginal leaders. Afterwards, there was a real strategy for health, education, affordable housing, infrastructure, accountability and also economic development, and it included $5 billion over 5 years to begin to improve this situation, which is an embarrassment to all Canadians.

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4:30 p.m.


David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask my colleague a question, but perhaps I will just get a couple of facts on the record first.

I am glad to see that the government is bringing this bill forward. After all, it was four front-line cabinet ministers in the government who were named by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor as being responsible for the Walkerton crisis, which killed many Ontarians and poisoned thousands of others.

The second thing I would like to remind the House about is that right now, for example, we are seeing the Experimental Lakes Area of Canada being completely killed in terms of funding. It is a global masterpiece of research for water and freshwater in the country. Moreover, the Environment Canada water research unit has been completely eliminated by the government. There is no water research capacity left. NRC's water research division has been slashed. The list goes on. The sustainable development technology Canada fund has been exhausted. There is no new money coming forward for water technologies.

How does my colleague react to that, particularly given the importance of not only Canada's first nations' drinking water crisis, but also the fact that one of the fastest growing environmental technology marketplaces in the world is to actually deal with water and waste water?

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4:30 p.m.


Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, we are also hearing across the country from first nations about navigable waters and why, in this omnibus bill, the only lakes and rivers protected seem to be in Conservative ridings. What happens to the lakes and rivers that first nations, Métis people and Inuit need for their livelihood? These waters must stay pure and remain something they can count on.

Many first nations leaders will tell us that they used to be able to put a cup in the water and drink it, that water is really important to them, the lifeblood of their existence. Just fixing bad water is not the issue. Protecting our water systems and being able to actually develop an economic development strategy that includes safe drinking water and waste water management should also be part of the economic development strategy for first nations.

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4:35 p.m.


LaVar Payne Conservative Medicine Hat, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the member a question and talk about safe and reliable drinking water and the increased capacity that we have.

I am quite amazed that it appears that the member opposite and the Liberal Party are prepared to oppose this bill, in clear contradiction of the motion that the Liberal Party put forward and that was carried unanimously in this House of Commons. I am wondering how she can square that.

I would also like to speak about the circuit rider training program. It is an important first vehicle for first nations operators to receive ongoing training and mentoring on-site. Since 2006, Aboriginal and Northern Affairs has increased funding from about $5 million to $10 million per year to hire more trainers. There are currently perhaps only 65 circuit trainers working for first nations across the country.

However, I would first really like to know how the hon. member is going to square that circle I mentioned.

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4:35 p.m.


Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will repeat the motion for the member:

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 actually means money. It means there must be the dollars for the infrastructure, the water treatment and the waste water plants, as well as the training that is required.

The 2012 federal budget did not deal with the billions of dollars that the federal panel said was required to fix this problem. We will see what happens when it comes to the committee. However, I was clear with the minister from September of last year that without some commitment to the money it will take to fix this problem, it will be very difficult for us to support this raining down of legislation: thou shalt do this and thou shalt do that, with no money to support it at all from the government.

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4:35 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Pursuant to Standing Order 38, is my duty to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Thunder Bay—Superior North, Telecommunications; the hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Fisheries and Oceans.

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4:35 p.m.


Jonathan Genest-Jourdain NDP Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to note that I will split my speaking time with my colleague, the member for Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing.

My speech will concern the bill respecting the safety of drinking water on first nation lands. And I would emphasize “first nation lands”. The French version of the bill is quite ambiguous about this. Does the expression “terres des premières nations” also include traditional lands? I will come back to that later.

This bill is an opportunity for me to expand on certain concepts outlined in my previous speeches that deserve to be explained in clearer terms for all Canadian citizens as a whole.

I will apply the principles of feedback here. Some of my colleagues, constituents and employees have told me that my way of speaking may seem arcane at times. This is something of an occupational hazard since I spent two years working for my band council on consultations about private cottage leases with Quebec's department of natural resources and wildlife. I subsequently taught at the college level and gave a course on legal and administrative aspects of aboriginal organizations. That has necessarily had an effect on the way I speak. Sometimes people may feel a bit lost as result of the terms I use, including “Indianness”, “fiduciary relationship” and “fiduciary obligation”. Today I will take stock and try to express those ideas in simpler terms. This is where we stand as a society. The general public must understand that, if we have to deal with legal texts that aim to circumvent those obligations by indirect means, that has something to do with all these subtleties surrounding the aboriginal question.

Certain concepts of aboriginal law should be explained since the bill before us is worded in a roundabout way that suggests there has been some recurring intrigue in the study of recent Conservative legislative initiatives respecting first nations.

Over the past year and a half, I have observed that a number of initiatives to amend the Indian Act, or matters specific to aboriginal identity in this country, have been designed to divide up the crown's current obligations toward aboriginal communities. This is quite distressing since, in many cases, those matters are entrenched in the Constitution. From the moment they concern identity issues, they are “Indianness” issues and issues that fall under the fiduciary relationship that must exist between the crown and aboriginal people. These are matters for the courts. The Supreme Court has staked it all out, through case law in particular; it is not codified. The ins and outs of this fiduciary obligation, of the fiduciary relationship, are not codified. However, they are clearly marked out. Many judges have adopted positions on these matters. We must examine the case law in order really to take stock of the scope of this fiduciary obligation.

Today I will try to explain it all in simple terms. From the moment an initiative, whether a legislative or a field initiative, is brought forward by the government and can interfere with title, traditional activities and aboriginal identity issues, it becomes an obligation issue, a fiduciary relationship issue. The government has a duty to adopt a rigorous principle of precaution and avoid affecting or unduly altering that relationship and matters that are entrenched in the Constitution. “Indianness” issues are all identity issues of the communities and of the Canadian government.

Coming back to matters specifically pertaining to drinking water, surface water and groundwater, I see from this bill that the Conservatives are trying to distance themselves somewhat from that obligation. This obligation falls, first and foremost, to the government. As is the case for Canadians as a whole, access to drinking water is a government obligation.

The aim of this specific bill is to make regulations that will ultimately transfer the entire burden to the communities, without—and this is worth noting—granting the necessary management budget and without any concern for water quality or damage to the water table.

Ironically, in 2012, the Conservatives are in the spotlight for approving a number of mining and forestry sector initiatives. Inevitably, those initiatives most often involve traditional first nations lands across the country. In communities that live in remote regions and in most cases return to those traditional lands, which have been theirs for more than 20,000 years—they have visited every square centimetre of them—there is a special relationship with drinking water sources on the land.

If the water table is damaged and the quality of surface water sources is no longer good, that is often related to this development, to these explorations. From the moment you carry on mining exploration—you drill and remove and analyze an ore sample—there is a real chance the water table will be affected.

If the Conservative government is trying to distance itself today, that is no doubt because it knows perfectly well that the intrigues involving the communities' traditional lands are linked to the lack of quality, to a damaged water table and to the often fair or debatable quality of surface water.

That is why I suspect the government, today, of trying to offload the responsibility onto the communities which, at the end of the day, have to deal with the radon gas contaminated water. It is just an example, but it is a relevant example that concerns my own riding.

In this particular case, it is clear that the relationship with the freshwater sources located on traditional lands is one of the first nations' bastions of identity.

This unilateral initiative violates the principles of the Crown's fiduciary responsibility, which describes the contribution of aboriginal peoples to the development of measures that have a major impact on the ancestral rights, titles and interests of the first nations. When I refer to fiduciary relationships, and fiduciary obligations, I should point out that this, too, is tied to this notion.

It means that governments, before considering and instituting measures that may hamper the traditional activities of communities and violate their identity and their rights—both treaty rights and ancestral rights—must, first and foremost, ensure that communities are involved, which is not the case here. Once again, this is a unilateral initiative. It has been decried internationally. Canada has been exposed in this matter.

I humbly submit that all of these initiatives are destined to fail as long as the first nations are not on the front lines, because these decisions must, ultimately, be the fruit of their reflection, and must be implemented by them.

In this instance, the government is trying to shirk its responsibility and distance itself from negative perceptions associated with its failure to take charge of issues that are its exclusive responsibility.

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4:45 p.m.


Élaine Michaud NDP Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my colleague on his very eloquent and very complete speech. I think our colleagues on the other side will have learned much from it.

I think clean drinking water is a fundamental right. My colleague may have heard of the municipality of Shannon in my riding, which has had to deal with contaminated water problems and needed substantial federal investments in order to get access to a potable water system.

Why is the government not investing in first nations communities, when they have a significant problem—even worse than in my riding—when it comes to access to drinking water?

I would like to hear more from my colleague on that question.

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4:45 p.m.


Jonathan Genest-Jourdain NDP Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her question. I will tell her now that the cost, in both financial and human terms, for remediating many surface water sources and water tables, is enormous at the present time. I think the Conservatives are starting to realize this today. There are analyses that have been brought to their attention.

Most often, these water sources, water tables and surface water sources, are located on traditional lands. The Conservatives know very well that their fiduciary duties mean that at this time, it is the people in power who have to make sure that services are delivered to the public and that the public has access to that water.

I know of communities very close to here, in Pontiac county, that simply cannot drink the water in their homes because the level of radioactivity exceeds all relevant standards. These are heavy costs, and they are the result of negligence that has gone on for decades, and today we can see the result. That is why the Conservatives are trying to distance themselves and shift the burden onto someone else.

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4:45 p.m.


David Wilks Conservative Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Mr. Speaker, as the member sits on the aboriginal affairs committee with me, he would know that in the past two years our Conservative government has put forward $338 million toward first nations water and waste water systems. That is a significant amount of money. He would also understand that this money needs also to have first nations' buy-in for those systems to be put in.

Would the member agree that our government is working toward access for first nations to clean water and waste water systems but that it requires the first nations to buy in to the process and that we cannot force a first nation into it?

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4:45 p.m.


Jonathan Genest-Jourdain NDP Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question.

There are always numbers to be cited regarding massive investments, but I would say that what is being done at present is damage control. That money could have been invested differently people’s quality of life had come first, rather than mining and industry agendas. We might not have needed to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in filtration systems for remediation and to ensure that people are drinking clean water in those areas.

If there had been better oversight of resource development initiatives, perhaps we would not be in the situation we are in today. If there had been better oversight of the impact of illegal occupation of the land for decades, we would not be where we are today. The negligence of the Conservatives today is cited as the problem, but the negligence of many others, before that, has also contributed.

The negligence has piled up over the years, and today we have this utterly deplorable result. If efforts had been made from the outset, there would be no need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in water remediation and treatment in 2012.

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4:50 p.m.


Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, late last fall, the interim leader of the Liberal Party brought in a motion for an opposition day, where we would recognize the importance of having clean running water for all Canadians. If memory serves me correctly, all members of the House voted in favour of that motion.

Given the very nature of the importance of having access to clean water, to what degree does the member believe the government is making it a priority issue, considering the fact that the House itself voted in favour of a motion that virtually said this is something we have to do?

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4:50 p.m.


Jonathan Genest-Jourdain NDP Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for the question.

On the face of it, the government is going to say all the right things. It will say that it is crucial that first nations have access to clean drinking water, just as every other Canadian does. However, it will be their actions in 2012 that will be lacking, given that really fixing the problem would be extremely costly, not to mention the human resources that would be needed, often in very remote regions. Common sense must prevail, and the Conservatives will have to give in and listen to the fact that fixing the situation is crucial and that access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right that belongs to all Canadians.

It is an enormous undertaking, and even with the best intentions in the world, so it will remain until fundamental changes take place in industrial practices and in social intervention, and until water quality is monitored in these communities, which are often remote.