Mr. Speaker, it is with very real frustration that I rise today to speak to Bill S-8, which is focused on federal regulations for water and waste water systems for first nations communities.
In his speech on Bill S-8 earlier this week, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs said:
It is time to move forward and create the regulations needed to safeguard drinking water in first nations communities.
That is not what the government committed to when in 2011 it supported the Liberal Party motion:
...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...
The same motion provided that:
action to address this disparity begin no later than the spring of 2012.
Simply passing a bill—a year late—to allow for water regulations to be imposed on first nations is not the action contemplated in that 2011 motion passed unanimously by the House of Commons. Bill S-8 is not going to fix the problem.
People living in a large proportion of first nations communities do not have access to basic, clean, drinkable water. Lack of access to clean drinking water presents a serious health threat to first nations communities, creating a higher likelihood of disease and infection transmission and poorer overall health outcomes, as we saw with the H1N1 epidemic, particularly on the reserves in northern Manitoba. We are dealing with a crisis that needs much more than words from the government: it needs action.
Unfortunately, this legislation shows just how out of touch the government is in terms of the appalling state of water and waste water systems in hundreds of first nations communities. It will not provide clean water to one more home or one more trained operator for a first nations water facility. The only thing the bill would do is distract from the government's inexcusable inaction on confronting the appalling capacity gaps in these communities in terms of water infrastructure and maintenance.
The position of the Liberal Party has been crystal clear on this legislation since the beginning. In fact, I wrote to the then minister for aboriginal affairs in September 2011. In that letter I explained the Liberal position had two fundamental points.
First, Liberals would not support any legislation on safe drinking water that was introduced without an implementation plan for additional resourcing that fully addresses the deficiencies identified in the national assessment on first nations water and waste water systems.
Second, the government would have to collaborate with first nations and obtain their free, prior and informed consent on the range of regulatory options regarding safe drinking water, as identified by the expert panel on safe drinking water for first nations, before the reintroduction of legislation.
The government has failed to address either of these critical points.
Every report regarding the tragic on-reserve water situation states that the massive infrastructure and capacity gaps must be addressed before a legislative option is adopted.
The Assembly of First Nations commented:
Bill S-8 will not guarantee that First Nations have access to safe drinking water. Bill S-8 creates new regulations and standards but does not provide First Nations with any resources to meet those new standards. ... Safe drinking water requires more than writing new regulations. Safe drinking water requires infrastructure and facilities, skills, training and resources.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs wrote to the committee, stating:
AMC has stated several times the fundamental problem is a financial resource one.
The Canadian Bar Association stated:
From a policy perspective, what is still needed is a firm government commitment to provide resources to address water quality issues on reserves, not necessarily new legislation.
In fact, witness after witness came before committee in opposition to this legislation and, among other problems, specifically identified the government's decision to move forward without addressing the capacity gap as the primary issue impacting the provision of safe water to first nations communities.
Grand Chief Roland Twinn of Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta reflected what the committee heard in general from first nations when he said:
...the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs of Treaties 6, 7, and 8 in Alberta has, from the very beginning, made significant efforts to work with the Harper government to fix the deplorable state of first nations' drinking water systems. Our efforts have been rewarded by the government with political spin, broken promises, and a meaningless piece of legislation that will do nothing to ensure safe drinking water for first nation people.
The government's own expert panel found:
Regulation alone will not be effective in ensuring safe drinking water.... Regulation without the investment needed to build capacity may even put drinking water safety at risk by diverting badly needed resources into regulatory frameworks and compliance costs.
That is the key point. The government's own expert panel said that far from fixing the problem, this approach may even make matters worse.
That report, on page 29, line 2, also said that:
...adequate resources for plants and piping, training and monitoring, and operations and maintenance...are more critical to ensuring safe drinking water than is regulation alone.
The 2007 Senate report entitled Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, from the aboriginal peoples committee chaired by the Hon. Gerry St. Germain, a Conservative senator, stated in the conclusion:
Sustained investment in the capacity of First Nations community water systems and of those running the systems is absolutely essential to ensure First Nations people on-reserve enjoy safe drinking water. Without this investment, we risk introducing a regulatory regime that burdens communities and does little to help them meet legislated standards.
Given the recommendations of the expert panel and first nations about the need to deal with capacity and resourcing issues before, or at least in concert with, legislation, it is shocking that the government decided to introduce the bill in the Senate, where it is subject to increased restrictions on incorporating resources. As a Senate bill there is, and can be, no funding appropriation attached to Bill S-8.
During his speech last week, the parliamentary secretary for aboriginal affairs bragged about the fact that his government “has made significant investments in water and waste water infrastructure....”
Despite actually taking credit for money yet to be spent, the parliamentary secretary neglected to note that his government's own 2011 national assessment of first nations water and waste water systems identified an immediate funding shortfall of $1.2 million and indicated it would require $4.7 billion of new money spent over the next 10 years to deal with the first nations water and waste water capacity gap. This funding shortfall took into account the current funding levels, which have not been increased since that time.
Let us be clear: the $330 million over two years the government points to in its 2012 budget is simply a temporary extension of temporary funding from 2010 and fails to address the capacity gap identified in the 2011 assessment.
In fact, not only is the government content to impose standards and regulations on first nations without providing the required investment in physical assets or capacity-building to deal with the problem, it is actually cutting the money allocated to first nations health and safety-related infrastructure projects, such as water facilities.
Budget 2011 proposed $7 billion over the next 10 years to continue to provide support for first nations, primarily for health and safety-related infrastructure projects. Given that over the past six years this program received an average of $1.2 billion annually, this “new” funding commitment actually represents a cut of approximately $345 million per year from the 2012 funding levels and $500 million from the six-year average. This is nothing short of shocking.
The legislation would result in significant new costs and responsibilities being imposed on first nations without any commitment to transfer the necessary resources.
Despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric at the Crown-First Nations Gathering about resetting the relationship, the Conservative government has shown a total disregard for the rights of indigenous people.
The Liberal Party has heard consistently in the Senate, in the House of Commons and in discussions outside Parliament that there were not appropriate consultations with first nations on this bill.
Grand Chief Craig Makinaw summed up this issue for the House of Commons committee studying this bill, when he stated, “...we shouldn't have one-day consultations across the country and conference calls. That's not consultation.” Consultation requires both a substantive dialogue and for the government to listen and, when appropriate, incorporate what it hears into the approach. Many did not even get the courtesy of a one-way information session the government tries to pass off as consultation.
Chief Charles Weaselhead of the Blood Tribe put it simply for the commons committee when he stated, “...there has been no consultation with the Blood Tribe”. Although first nations have a constitutional right to be consulted on matters like this, the Liberal Party believes it is also just good government to consult with all those impacted by decisions.
At committee, a representative of Metro Vancouver pointed out:
A lack of acknowledgement of local government interests and the absence of a meaningful consultation process, including opportunities for local government involvement and input, pose serious challenges for local communities in that public interests with respect to Bill S-8 are not being fully considered.
Proper consultation leads to better policies and solutions that actually make sense. That has not happened regarding Bill S-8. The bill explicitly subjects existing aboriginal and treaty rights to a clause that suggests that such rights can be overridden. What is disguised as a non-derogation clause states, “to the extent necessary to ensure the safety of drinking water on First Nation lands”.
When the Canadian Bar Association presented to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, it noted, “We believe that the qualification 'except to the extent necessary to ensure the safety of the drinking water on First Nation lands' is in itself an explicit abrogation or derogation of existing Aboriginal or treaty rights pursuant to section 35 of the Constitution Act...”.
Mr. Christopher Devlin of the CBA also made it clear to the committee, “Our simple point to the committee is that we don't believe this is necessary and we don't believe it is required for the bill to be effective as it's drafted.”
Despite evidence from legal and aboriginal experts about the serious problems with this clause, the government stubbornly refused all opposition amendments to fix it. This prompted National Chief Shawn Atleo of the AFN to write to the minister after the bill was reported back to the House, urging him to correct this flawed clause before the bill is passed into the House of Commons. He made it clear in that letter, which states, “First Nations will not accept the diminishment of Aboriginal and treaty rights in Bill S-8.” It is time for the government to listen.
All Canadians, regardless of where in Canada they live, whether it is in the north, the south or elsewhere in the country, have a fundamental right to have access to drinking water and adequate water facilities. The Liberal Party will not be supporting this legislation because the government has decided to move forward in a way that not only ignores the fundamental issues at stake, but may actually make things worse.