Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Edmonton—Leduc.
Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to explain to the opposition, and to Canadians, why I support Bill S-8, the safe drinking water for first nations act, and why I urge my hon. colleagues to stop voting against a bill that would give first nations access to safe drinking water.
The solution at the heart of Bill S-8 is the product of more than seven years of engagement and discussion with a wide range of groups, including first nations, provinces, municipalities, parliamentary committees and organizations devoted to the science of drinking water.
Perhaps the best way to fully appreciate the considerable value of Bill S-8 is to trace its evolution.
In March 2006, our government, working with the Assembly of First Nations, announced the joint plan of action for drinking water in first nation communities. Among the five points in the plan of action was the development of an appropriate regulatory framework.
To help identify what the framework should consist of, the plan called for a panel of experts to be chosen by government and first nations officials. The expert panel held a series of hearings across Canada, in 9 locations in all, to hear from a total of 110 representatives from first nation communities, as well as other stakeholder groups. The panel also received and considered more than two dozen written submissions, most of them prepared by first nation communities and organizations. In its final report, the panel examined three regulatory options and provided valuable advice on the advantages and the disadvantages of each one.
The next step in Bill S-8's evolution occurred in 2009, when the Government of Canada held a series of engagement sessions with first nation groups. The sessions began in Whitehorse, Yukon, and continued in 12 other cities. The 13 engagement sessions attracted more than 500 participants representing first nations.
It is important to note that while work on a regulatory framework continued, our government continued to live up to the commitments it had made through the plan of action. Progress reports were tabled in Parliament, for instance, and budget 2008 invested approximately $330 million, over two years, in projects to improve drinking water in first nation communities. Budget 2009 included an additional $165 million per year, over two years, for first nation water and waste water infrastructure projects.
Our government is also committed to expanding the circuit rider training program and funding a national assessment of first nation water and waste water systems.
In 2010, the government introduced Bill S-11. A standing committee in the Senate held a series of hearings to review the proposed legislation and heard from 40 individual witnesses. Now, although this version of the bill died on the order paper in the initial review, it identified a number of challenges that have since been addressed.
In the interim, government officials continued to discuss regulatory options with first nation groups. Of particular note were the without prejudice discussions with regional first nation organizations across the country. It was during these without prejudice discussions that the first nations proposed a non-derogation clause that would resolve what was perceived to be a major problem with the previous version of Bill S-8. The problem involves the relationship between federal legislation and the constitutional rights of first nations.
The proposed clause would not prevent the government from justifying a derogation or abrogation of aboriginal or treaty rights if it were necessary to ensure the safety of first nations' drinking water.
A second significant development came in the summer of 2011 when our government published the national assessment of first nations water and waste water systems. I am proud to say that this was the most comprehensive examination of first nation water and waste water infrastructure in history.
This report shed a new light on the larger issues at play. The report found that many water systems in first nations communities had a high risk of failure to produce safe water if a problem were to arise. The report identified a need for clear guidelines and recommended the establishment of a regulatory framework for water and waste waster systems. This provided additional momentum to move ahead with the practical solutions.
Last year we introduced Bill S-8, a stronger version of its predecessor. There are several improvements worth noting, such as that the preamble in the proposed legislation explicitly states the government's intention to improve the health and safety of first nations and to work with first nations to develop drinking water regulations.
The new version includes a non-derogation clause that clearly addresses the relationship between the legislation and aboriginal and treaty rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Clause 4.(1)(b) of the new version clarifies that any regulation on source water protection on first nation lands would be restricted so as to protect it from contamination.
The new version also clarifies that regulations could not include the power to allocate water supplies or to license users of water for any purpose other than for accessing drinking water.
There is new language to clarify that the regulations could confer to any person or body only the powers necessary to effectively regulate drinking water and waste water systems. Wording that was perceived to negate first nations authority over water on their lands has been deleted.
Another part of the previous version that has been removed is language that could be interpreted as powers to compel first nations into an agreement with third parties to manage water and the waste water on first nations lands.
Finally, Bill S-8 also features language to clarify that first nations would not be held liable for systems owned by third parties that are on first nations lands.
There have been many changes to this legislation since its last iteration in order to address the concerns raised by first nations, parliamentarians and other stakeholders. In fact, these changes respond directly to the concerns raised by first nations groups.
Moreover, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development recommended an amendment to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development that further addresses concerns raised by first nations to remove the opt-in provision from the bill, demonstrating that our government is listening to first nations concerns and working to address them. I am pleased to see that the hard-working members of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development agreed by removing this from the bill.
The proposed legislation now before the House has been informed by a comprehensive process of consultation, review and improvement.
Bill S-8 proposes an effective solution to a problem that continues to threaten the health and safety of residents of first nations communities. I hope that the opposition can recognize the urgent health and safety issues at stake here and support Bill S-8.