Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on the important issue of the health and safety of all Canadian citizens, and, in particular, on Canada's first nations and their right to have access to the same safe, clean, reliable drinking water that other Canadian citizens enjoy.
Bill S-8, safe drinking water for first nations act, will enable the government to develop regulations with first nations to provide access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water to men, women and children living on first nations lands.
My support for Bill S-8 is further founded on two facts: the proposed legislation has been developed in collaboration with first nations; and, upon royal assent, regulations will be developed on a region-by-region basis in collaboration with first nations, provinces, territories and other stakeholders.
Bill S-8 proposes a mechanism to resolve another complex problem: the lack of a regulatory foundation to protect the quality of drinking water available in first nations communities.
This proposed legislation is the product of years of engagement, consultation and collaboration with first nations. There have been formal and informal meetings, town hall sessions, without prejudice discussions and workshops. Hundreds of people, including representatives of the Assembly of First Nations and associations of first nations chiefs, along with residents of first nations communities, have participated in these sessions. Their input has shaped the contents of the legislation now before us in several significant ways.
Bill S-8 calls for this collaboration to continue. Governmental officials would work alongside their first nations counterparts on a region-by-region basis to establish a series of regulatory regimes. Under this process, the parties would craft regimes that could draw on existing provincial, territorial or first nations regimes and adapt them to the particular circumstances of first nations. This is entirely appropriate, as a one-size-fits-all approach could never hope to accommodate the social, economic and geographic diversity of first nations communities. A regulatory approach that works for a remote community in northern Manitoba, for instance, might not work for a first nation in urban British Columbia.
Of course, every regime would have to satisfy minimum standards for safety, the same standards required by the provincial and territorial laws that protect drinking water quality off reserve. Under the regimes established through Bill S-8, drinking water would have to be sampled and tested in accordance with established methods and standards, and contamination thresholds would have to be based on scientific evidence.
This co-operative approach would ensure that those who would be subject to the regulations would have a role in creating them. This would help promote a greater understanding of the new regimes as well as ensure that these regimes are reflective of the diverse needs of each region.
We can expect that the federal regulations governing drinking water in a given first nation would be similar to the regulations governing the drinking water of nearby communities. Complementary regimes would open the door to further collaboration, such as joint training and certification programs or shared treatment and distribution facilities. This would, in turn, inspire co-operation on other common issues and opportunities.
Ultimately, of course, the goal is to ensure that all Canadians, regardless of where they live, can access safe drinking water. Access to clean, safe and reliable drinking water is an important determinant of health and a driver of socio-economic development. Yet the truth is that most first nation communities do not have regulations in place that safeguard water quality.
The current regime comprises a tangled web of protocols and funding agreements that are not legally enforceable. As a result, standards are not clear and it is impossible to hold anyone accountable for substandard and unsafe drinking water.
As I mentioned a moment ago, Bill S-8 is the product of a lengthy and collaborative process. Seven years ago, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development called on the Government of Canada to address the regulatory gap related to drinking water in first nations communities. Since then, two other authoritative bodies—an expert panel and a standing committee of the other place—studied the matter and made similar recommendations.
Even the Liberals, back in November 2011, put forward a motion calling on the government to improve first nations' access to safe drinking water. The House fully endorsed that motion. I hope that now my hon. colleagues opposite will put aside their partisanship, honour their noble commitment to improving access to safe drinking water and back this important legislation, which goes far beyond the words of that motion.
The collaboration that inspired Bill S-8 began in 2006, when the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations announced a plan of action on first nations' drinking water. This joint undertaking, the plan of action, called for a number of measures, including the development of appropriate regulations. From the outset, the government has directly involved various first nations organizations in the development of legislative options.
In 2007, the expert panel created under the plan of action met with first nations representatives and technical experts from all over the country and subsequently recommended the development of safe drinking water legislation. Departmental officials met with the Assembly of First Nations technical water experts group to discuss options for this legislation. Then, in 2008, the government began to meet with representatives of first nations groups.
The following year, the government released a discussion paper based on the option of incorporation by reference of provincial and territorial standards and held a series of 13 engagement sessions. It heard from more than 500 members of first nations. Although a consensus emerged about the need to address health and environmental concerns, there remained concerns about the proposed approach to legislation.
After the engagement sessions, the government held a series of meetings with regional and national organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations. These discussions involved a range of concerns about the proposed legislation.
The Government of Canada then introduced into the Senate an earlier version of the legislation, Bill S-11. The Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples began to review the proposed legislation and heard from more than 40 witnesses before the previous Parliament was dissolved.
Rather than simply reintroduce the same legislation, our government chose to collaborate further to identify and incorporate improvements. In particular, officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada held without prejudice discussions with first nations groups. Invites were sent to first nations organizations from all over Canada, and some first nations organizations were willing to work with the government to improve the legislation, in particular those from Alberta and the Atlantic.
During these discussions, new ideas emerged to address specific concerns with the previous version of the bill. Several changes were made, and as such, I am proud to say that first nations organizations directly influenced the contents of Bill S-8. As a result of this collaboration, the legislation now before us is stronger.
Thousands of people residing in first nations communities lack regulations that safeguard the quality of their drinking water. Bill S-8 would provide authority for the government to draft and implement appropriate regulations, working with first nations. These regulations would help protect the health and safety of first nations men, women and children.
This important legislation fully deserves the support of the House. I urge my hon. colleagues to vote in favour of Bill S-8.