Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House to speak to a very important bill and a very important issue for the people I represent in northern Manitoba. I am honoured to represent the people of Churchill. That includes 33 first nations, first nations that are diverse, young with tremendous energy and tremendous opportunity. However, immense challenges exist on these first nations. Nowhere is that challenge more evident than the lack of access to safe drinking water, water services and sewage services on first nations.
When the reference to third world conditions is made, it is made because of the lack of access to safe drinking water that exists on many first nations in northern Manitoba. I think of the Island Lake community, four first nations that are isolated on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. I think of St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill, Wasagamack and Red Sucker Lake. All of these communities are growing, like many first nations, at a high rate. There are a lot of young people and young families. Overcrowding and lack of housing are very serious issues.
However, what is evident in these communities is the impact of the lack of safe drinking water in terms of health outcomes, in terms of broader indicators of quality of life, in terms of the mortality rate that unfortunately among first nations remains lower than the Canadian average. That mortality rate is connected to a number of factors, but the fundamental lack of access to safe drinking water is key.
It is unacceptable that in the year 2013, in a country as wealthy as Canada, that first nations, simply because they are first nations, lack access to a basic right, the right of clean water and access to safe drinking water. They lack access to the kind of infrastructure that would ensure a healthier lifestyle in line with that which all Canadians enjoy.
While members from the governing party have spoken to the disastrous indicators, what they fail to speak to is their own failure to uphold their fiduciary obligation to first nations, their own failure to live up to the treaties, to respect aboriginal and treaty rights in ensuring that first nations, no matter where they are, have access to safe drinking water.
Instead of recognizing that failure and investing in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary, investing in the kind of training that is necessary for first nations to be able to provide access to safe drinking water, the government has chosen to uphold its pattern of imposing legislation on first nations. Not only has it imposed legislation in this case, Bill S-8, but it has done so without consultation, without recognizing the tremendous concerns that first nations have brought forward with respect to previous iterations of the bill. Fundamentally it is disrespecting its commitments under the treaties, under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which it signed. Even more reason for concern is the fact it is putting first nations in even greater danger than they are already in.
We know that Bill S-8 provides no funding to improve water systems on reserve. This is shameful because, given the rhetoric that we hear from the government about commitments to first nations, the reality is that when it comes to making a difference for safe drinking water, the need for investment in infrastructure and investment in capacity building is extremely serious.
I was there in February this year, but I remember being in Little Grand Rapids a couple of years back where the water treatment plant operator talked to us about how the chemicals he needed to be able to make sure that the water was safe for his community to drink were going to run out halfway through the year. I have spoken to water treatment plant operators who have talked about the lack of access to training programs so that they can improve their skills, so they can have the knowledge and skill set to be able to provide safe drinking water for their community members.
I have heard from water treatment plant operators, sewage treatment plant operators and leaders in communities who have expressed real concern about their inability, with the little they are given from this federal government, to provide what is a basic standard of living to their people. That onus falls entirely on the backs of the federal government.
Unfortunately, this is a result of years of neglect by the previous Liberal government, the imposition of the 2% cap that was halted, and has frozen in many cases, the kind of funding that is necessary for first nations to operate, and has been very much continued by the Conservative government.
We have seen that first nations that are continuing to grow, where their needs are continuing to grow, are turning to a federal government that is not only not prepared to make the investments in infrastructure, but is actually imposing its colonial agenda to boot.
We are very concerned in the NDP that on Bill S-8, like previous bills, Bill S-2, and so many others that impact first nations, Bill C-27, the government has insisted on shutting down debate on these very important bills, preventing members of Parliament from speaking out on behalf of their constituents who would be negatively impacted as a result of this legislation. We believe that by doing so, it is also silencing the voice of the first nations in this House.
This practice has unfortunately also been applied to committees where the facts have not been heard because of the government's attempt to muzzle those who oppose its agenda.
We in the NDP also stand in solidarity with first nations that have decried the government's continued pattern in which bills affecting first nations also include a clause, and we see it in Bill S-8, that gives the government the ability to derogate from aboriginal rights. The clause says, “Except to the extent necessary to ensure the safety of drinking water on first nations land”.
It is unconscionable that a federal government that is charged with a fiduciary obligation to first nations, that is there to honour the treaty relationships it is party to, would go so far as to derogate from aboriginal rights, to be able to break that very commitment it has to first nations. That is a failure on the part of the government. First nations have risen up against this failure, through the Idle No More movement, and through activism and leadership that first nations have consistently shown, saying that they are opposed to the government's agenda, and Bill S-8 is one of those reasons if we look at it clearly.
We are also very concerned about the pattern of unilaterally imposing legislation. We recognize that the AFN, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, a series of representative organizations of first nations have been very clear in their opposition to Bill S-8.
The reality is that the government is trying to change the channel on its own failed rhetoric around accountability and transparency, words that it cannot take to heart, given the recent scandals that have emerged. The government is trying to change the channel and put the blame on first nations.
When it comes to something as serious as access to safe drinking water, there is no room for these kinds of political games. The government should stand up, and instead of changing the channel, instead of imposing legislation, instead of breaking its commitment under the treaties and disrespecting aboriginal rights, it should work with first nations in partnership to make the investments that are necessary and obvious to ensure that safe access to drinking water exists in first nations communities the way it exists in communities across the country.
For the people of Island Lake, for first nations across this country, for all Canadians, we deserve better from the government.