House of Commons Hansard #204 of the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was commissioner.


Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.


Tom Kmiec Conservative Calgary Shepard, AB

Mr. Speaker, the Centre for Law and Democracy will give a rating out of 150 points, and the rating says that this so-called improvement, this amendment law, only improves the rating by two points. That is two points for all of this supposed historic milestone that the government has reached in amending the law.

Other points it makes are about vexatious and frivolous claims for access to information, or what the department considers vexatious. The centre says that should be reversed, that it should first go to the Information Commissioner to determine whether it is vexatious. People should not have to go to the Information Commissioner if they disagree with the department.

Could the member tell us why the government did not just ask the Centre for Law and Democracy to write the bill for it?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.


Andy Fillmore Liberal Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Centre for Law and Democracy for the concept of the RTI and for its contribution to the bill, through its advocacy, as it stands now.

Our government is raising the bar and enshrining a culture of openness and transparency across government. The legislation will require a proactive disclosure of mandate letters, question period binders, travel and hospitality expenses, and contracts over $10,000. This will ensure Canadians have more information about the way their leaders work.

This would replace the current patchwork approach for proactive disclosure with one commonly and evenly applied set of rules. These reforms are an important step in an ongoing review and modernization of the Access to Information Act. We look forward to working with all members and the Centre for Law and Democracy to enhance accountability.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.


Sheri Benson NDP Saskatoon West, SK

Mr. Speaker, some of the comments we have heard from the government have been around the fact that it has been so long, that we should be grateful it is doing something.

That type of attitude really bothers me, because I think it creates cynicism in the public. I do not see why we need to take incremental steps, particularly with some of the things the Prime Minister said during the election campaign.

I want to focus on one part of the bill, and that is not extending the coverage of the Access to Information Act to the Prime Minister's Office and the ministers' offices. From what the Prime Minister said during the election, this should be a highlight of the bill.

On what grounds did the government decide that Canadians did not deserve this transparency of these offices?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


Andy Fillmore Liberal Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is hard to imagine anything that creates more cynicism than being chastised for doing the right thing.

We are very proud to be doing the right thing. It is overdue. We are taking a very good, fundamental step toward increasing openness and transparency through this bill and through many actions across the mandate of the government. We are ensuring that these changes impact a variety of our parliamentary institutions, including the Library of Parliament, the parliamentary budget officer, the Parliamentary Protective Service, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer, the administration of both the Senate and House of Commons, and the list goes on.

We are fundamentally doing the work of good democracy in Canada to create the most open and transparent democracy we can.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


Tom Kmiec Conservative Calgary Shepard, AB

Mr. Speaker, the member must know that past legislation the government put forward, such as Bill C-44, Budget Implementation Act, 2017, No. 1, actually limited access. Section 28 actually limited the access Canadians could have to documentation related to the Canada infrastructure bank.

The member must know that in this legislation, the government is actually getting rid of the section that forces departments to list the types of documentation and records they keep. That is not me saying it. Ken Rubin and the Centre for Law and Democracy say this. How can the Liberals claim that this is somehow a vast improvement, when they are actually drawing back on certain elements and have kept every single exemption in the law?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


Andy Fillmore Liberal Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, as I said, this is part of our massive effort across government to increase openness and transparency, not just through this act but through amendments to other acts that are on the Order Paper as well. We are fundamentally increasing the openness and transparency of our government and are increasing the ability of Canadians to have less cynicism and more trust in what we are trying to do here.

I look forward to working with all members of this House and of the other place, as does the Minister of Democratic Institutions, to make sure we can achieve those outcomes together.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Vancouver Quadra B.C.


Joyce Murray LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak to Bill C-58, a comprehensive set of amendments to the Access to Information Act that would deliver on our government's key commitment to improve openness and transparency in government. If passed, these amendments would make progress in bringing Canada's access to information legislation in line with the communication advances of the last three decades.

The act has not been significantly updated since it came into force 34 years ago, when fax machines were cutting edge and information was stored in huge filing rooms. As we all know, however, the world has evolved considerably since then. Today, it is smart phones and social media, big data and high-speed Internet.

Canadians seek out information through digital channels, and government can now interact with the public through the web and social media. Moreover, the volume of information the government manages has dramatically increased.

I think we can all agree that the current act needs to be brought up to date.

We have certainly been hearing that so far in the debate.

This is why the government committed to reforming Canada’s access to information program. This modernization began with early action to improve access to information.

In May 2016, the President of the Treasury Board issued an interim directive that enshrined the principle of open by default. He eliminated all fees, apart from the $5 filing fee, and directed the release of government information in user-friendly formats wherever possible. Fees for processing large-volume requests could run into the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars and sometimes deterred people from having access to public information.

Those were good first steps. Today we are maintaining that elimination of fees, and we are bringing forward transformative measures to enhance Canadians' access to government information.

Let me begin with one of many ground-breaking features of our proposed legislation. For the very first time, the Information Commissioner would have order-making power. No access to information regime is complete without powerful and meaningful oversight. We promised Canadians that we would find ways to empower the Office of the Information Commissioner to order government information to be released.

The bill before us today would do just that. This is something that has come up again and again in the debate as one of the key things that are a necessary change, and we are making that change. This change would strengthen the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with a legislative ability to order government institutions to release records.

The legislation also proposes to entrench in law, for future and current governments, an obligation to proactively publish a broad range of information on a predictable schedule and without the need for anyone to make an access to information request for that information.

The amendments would create a new part of the act on proactive publication which builds on current best practices, applies consistent requirements across government institutions, and seizes on the opportunities of our digital age.

These amendments would result in the proactive release of key information throughout government.

This is a process that would take place across literally hundreds of offices and departments of the government. It would allow our citizens a greater understanding of government and would demonstrate effective stewardship of public funds.

Here is another first. Through this legislative system of mandatory proactive disclosure, the act would, for the first time ever, include ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's Office, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges of the superior courts.

This system of mandatory proactive disclosure puts a strong emphasis on increasing the information that is open by default and making information that is of interest to Canadians freely available on the web.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few more features of the reforms we will make to our access to information regime.

Having just spoken about the proactive publication that is key to our commitment to openness by default, I also want to mention a few other things we are doing in the bill.

We will develop a new plain language guide that will provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions. The rationale for these exclusions will be laid out, a rationale that will be in the public interest.

We would invest in tools to make processing information more efficient. That is an important way to address one of the key weaknesses of our current system, which is how many access to information requests are not responded to in a timely way.

The bill would allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request processing services for greater efficiency and timeliness. It would support the new legislation with government training. There are many things we would do.

It is important to note that many of our changes were initiated at the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

It would be subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner. The bill proposes that if a department decides to decline to act on a request, the requester will have the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner, and the Commissioner could use the new order-making power to resolve the issue.

This is a new authority that could significantly improve the system, but it needs to be implemented with care.

We look forward to debating the proposed provisions with parliamentarians in a thoughtful way. All these changes were designed to address criticism from Canadians about delays and inconsistencies in the current request-based system and recommendations from stakeholders, such as the Information Commissioner and our colleagues at the ETHI committee.

We can never become complacent when it comes to openness and transparency. That is why the reforms before us today are the first legislative phase in what would be an ongoing review and modernization of the act.

The legislation would require a review of the act every five years, and as I pointed out earlier in the debate, the first review would start no later than one year after royal assent, so this is really an ongoing improvement process. These five-year reviews would provide an important opportunity for Canadians to have their say on access rights and would help us make sure that the system met their needs.

These reviews will assess what is working and how, and ensure that the act is never allowed to become so outdated again. Today, I am proud to be part of the first government to bring significant change to the Access to Information Act since it was first introduced over 30 years ago.

I encourage all members to support this work and this bill, and in doing so help us take a great step forward in updating the Access to Information Act.

I also look forward to continuing to work with Parliament, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, and other stakeholders to further strengthen our access to information regime.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:05 p.m.


Murray Rankin NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, the parliamentary secretary said that this bill delivers on a key commitment of transparency for the government. I ask her why the government chose not to change one single rule, one single exemption, or the cabinet exclusion by which it is allowed to hold information back. If it delivers in the way that she suggests, why the scathing criticism from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Democracy Watch, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, and even the Canadian Association of Research Librarians?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:05 p.m.


Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would say to my colleague from Victoria that exclusions and exemptions are there to protect highly sensitive information related to national security, the privacy of Canadians, commercial sensitivity, and cabinet confidence. This is a historic upgrade and improvement to our Access to Information Act, and it must include the ability to exclude certain information from public access. That is just what we are doing.

I want to remind the member that this is a historic first for Canada in that the Information Commissioner will have order-making powers. If there is a concern that an exclusion is not based on one of these requirements, that person can go to the Information Commissioner, who can order the government to do it differently.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:05 p.m.


Pierre Nantel NDP Longueuil—Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, we are familiar with my colleague's deep experience.

Does she realize that many people get the impression that this is like a mother-in-law going down into the basement to see if it is tidied up, but two or three things were strategically placed so that she would not have to look too far? I get the impression that that is more or less what the government is doing right now. It promises to provide access to all sorts of things, to several examples to prove that everything is just fine, then closes the door that provides access to other secrets and locks and seals it up. It is more complicated than ever to get information.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:10 p.m.


Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

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

I would say that these changes to the Access to Information Act are truly important and powerful for Canadians. They follow the great principles of openness and transparency and put mechanisms in place for disclosing information.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:10 p.m.


Murray Rankin NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, in her response to one of the questions, thehon. parliamentary secretary referred to order-making powers. She said that the exclusions did not need to be fixed, because they will now be the subject of order-making powers by the commissioner. If a category in the legislation is very wide, which in other jurisdictions covering the same issues, such as policy advice, is more narrow, then giving an order-making power to someone to say that it is indeed in that category does not really achieve the goal of greater transparency.

I would invite the House to look at proposed section 36.1 as presented in clause 16 of the new bill to see if anyone can make sense of the order-making power of which she speaks. It is a long way from a situation in which the commissioner makes an order, and that is it, unless there is judicial review.

Therefore, on those two counts, I hardly think we can be pleased with what we have before us.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:10 p.m.


Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, let me be clear for the member for Victoria. What I said was that there are very good reasons for certain exclusions and exemptions. We respect those reasons. The member himself pointed out that it is an important pillar of a proper access to information approach. The focus of this bill is to implement our mandate letter of commitment, and that is exactly what we are doing.

We have also been clear that this is the beginning of an ongoing process. We look forward to continuing to strengthen the system at the first occasion, which is the mandatory review that would be started within a year of this bill receiving royal assent.

I want to also point out that exclusions such as cabinet confidences have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as a part of our democratic principles.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:10 p.m.


Pat Kelly Conservative Calgary Rocky Ridge, AB

Mr. Speaker, Canadians deserve a government that is accountable and open by default. For that to be possible, Canadians must have access to information about government decisions and practices to hold their government to account. While the Liberal government pays lips service to those ideals of openness and accountability, it has consistently fallen short of implementing them. We have seen this in a variety of areas, particularly with the statement by the Prime Minister on open and accountable government.

The stated aim of Bill C-58 is to update the Access to Information Act with necessary reforms. However, as with many Liberal promises, it fails to achieve them. We have heard them invoking flowery language and buzz words and making grand-sounding claims as a substitute for action in many instances in this Parliament. This bill is no different in many respects, and I will get to some of them.

An open and accountable government requires citizens to have access to information about decisions made by Parliament and government entities. Since the first Access to Information Act was introduced in 1983, the act has provided Canadians with the means to request information about themselves, or decisions affecting them. However, because of significant changes in information technology and in government operations and the passage of time, the act has not been meaningfully updated since it was first introduced, and many critics across all party lines have identified the need for reform.

The Conservatives introduced the idea of openness by default in the previous parliament. In 1983, it was originally a Liberal government that introduced the act. However, successive Conservative and Liberal governments have neglected to update it as required. Although I guess the current Liberal government is to be commended for undertaking the task in the first place, we see many shortcomings in the resulting bill. Bill C-58 does not adequately address many of the flaws in Canada's current access to information regime that we heard about in detail at committee.

When I was a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, we conducted a detailed study of the act and the issues surrounding it. We heard from numerous witnesses, from accountability watchdogs to ATIP officers in government departments to Canada's Information Commissioner, and others. We reviewed the commissioner's comprehensive report on the state of access to information in Canada and adopted many of her key recommendations in our own report. All three parties on the committee co-operated to draft a thoughtful report, with sensible recommendations for access to information reform. However, the government's response to our report is both late and underwhelming. The Liberals promised that phase one of the ministerial level review of Canada's access to information regime would be completed in time to produce legislation in early 2017. Here we are in late September and just beginning today to debate the bill, which many critics consider to be a half measure.

One of the primary flaws that witnesses at committee pointed out is the culture of secrecy throughout government. Such a culture runs contrary to both Liberal promises and Conservative initiatives. This has run across party lines over time. For example, the Conservatives hold that Canada's government should be open by default. In the last parliament, the Conservative government released a study titled “Canada's Action Plan on Open Government”, in which the Conservatives recognized the following:

The key challenge for governments is how to shift to an environment where data and information are released openly to the public by default while respecting privacy, security, and confidentiality restrictions.

Such an environment represents a fundamental change in government culture that requires government-wide direction to drive the release of federal information and advance overall objectives for transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement.

Such an environment of disclosure would be a stark departure from what witnesses at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics described as a culture of secrecy among government entities.

According to witnesses like Sean Holman, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the general attitude of the public service is one of withholding instead of disclosing information, and one of caution instead of candour. This attitude flows from the act and from cabinet. Mr. Holman put it clearly when he said:

We have a cultural problem when it comes to secrecy....Fixing the Access to Information Act is only one part of addressing those problems....the problem with the Access to Information Act when it was introduced was that it was grafted onto a secretive political system. We did not deal with the actual problem; we instead introduced legislation that conformed to the system as it currently existed.

He was referring to the adoption of the original act in 1983, which has remained virtually unchanged since then.

This is not to criticize Canada's public servants, since they respond to direction from the top. Those that enter the public service walk into a culture that already exists. Bringing about a culture of openness by default requires buy-in from ministers, the Prime Minister, deputy ministers, and senior managers among all departments. Culture cannot be changed overnight and simply by adopting a new law in Parliament.

Openness and accountability require timely responses. Witnesses at committee complained bitterly about the delays in the service standards for responding to ATIPS. They mentioned that extension after extension can take response times of up to over a year in some cases. This diminishes the news value of information for journalists. It puts people's lives on hold in some circumstances when they need vital information, and brings to mind the adage that justice delayed is justice denied.

Bill C-58 includes some of the committee's recommendations, the most significant of which is granting the commissioner the power to issue binding orders for the disclosure of particular information. Although it should increase the public's access to information, such order-making power is not a panacea for solving a culture of secrecy. Also, it was not uniformly endorsed in witness testimony, although it was the final recommendation of the committee.

The committee heard from witnesses like Professor Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and access to information and privacy lawyer. He argued that switching to an order-making model is unnecessary because the issue and the problem that existed was the culture in government and the lack of openness in which departmental ATIP officers responded or operated in.

If within a department the ATIP officers and other members of the public service have a mindset and a culture to openly disclose information and to think first of ensuring that it is released on a timely basis, we might not be arguing about whether or not order-making power is necessary to compel disclosure. Delay is the biggest failure perhaps, which will not be solved by merely establishing order-making power for the commissioner.

We are glad to see that Bill C-58 requires the minister to undertake a review at least within one year of royal assent and every five years thereafter. Hopefully, that will prevent us from going another 34 years without a review of the act. It is important, because we know that the pace of change in information technology and the evolution of that technology is very fast, and as long as political will continues to exist to review the act in the future, it is good to have the built-in provision for review.

The provisions in Bill C-58 requiring proactive publication of materials related to Parliament, ministers' offices, superior courts, and other government institutions are a welcome addition to the access to information regime and should contribute to the culture of openness by default, but there is certainly a long way to go to establish that change of culture.

Proactive disclosure of sought after information should increase democratic accountability and pre-empt many requests, but proactive disclosure by various parliamentary and governmental entities is not the same as extending the scope of the Access to Information Act to cover them. It is not what the committee recommended nor what the commissioner recommended and not what the Liberals promised in their 2015 election platform, and it is not what the Prime Minister ordered in the mandate letter of the President of the Treasury Board.

The minister's mandate letter instructs him to lead a review of the act and implement certain reforms, such as ensuring that “the Act applies appropriately to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.”

Ensuring that the act applies to the prime minister's and ministers' offices requires more than proactive disclosure of a limited list of useful information, but this is not the only recommendation that the bill either ignores or only partially addresses.

Our report suggested several matters that the government should consider or consult on during the second phase of its review. I welcome an update from the government on the state of those considerations and consultations.

Open and accountable government requires an access to information regime that ensures timely responses to ATIP requests. This applies to all elements of the Government of Canada, with a few important exceptions, namely, to protect parliamentary privilege, cabinet confidence, and national security. This prevents government entities from wiggling out of disclosure obligations. That is why the committee recommended that the minister consult the organizations that support Parliament, such as the clerks of the Senate and the House of Commons, and the parliamentary librarian to determine how to effectively protect parliamentary privilege and create an independent review process for such provisions.

To improve timely response to ATIP requests, we recommended limiting extensions to only those cases where strictly necessary, and even then, only for a maximum of 30 days. We also recommended repealing exclusions in the act and replacing them with exemptions as needed. As Ken Rubin mentioned, when responding to a question at committee, we cannot expect to change a culture of secrecy just by giving order-making power to the commissioner, and especially not if all the carve-outs remain in place through the retention of an extensive list of exemptions.

Eliminating exclusions, which are stated areas that the act does not cover, and replacing them with exemptions, which would allow government entities to refuse requests on specific grounds, would provide greater oversight of Canada's access to information regime. It would also shift the culture of the public service more toward openness by default.

To protect the vital governance work of Parliament, the committee recommended adding a mandatory exemption for cabinet confidences when disclosure would reveal the substance of cabinet deliberations, except when such discussions cover a period of factual or background information when there is consent for disclosure of the information, and so forth.

For ease of understanding, to reduce the volume of requests received and to contribute to a culture of openness by default, the committee recommended that institutions respond to ATIP requests by providing information in open, reusable, and accessible file formats, such as pdf, Word, Excel, and similar formats, instead of obscure and highly specialized ones.

Although useful in their own right, the measures the committee recommended would not create a comprehensive access to information regime with great swaths of government entities that are not subject to the act.

Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pointed out at committee that “as a general principle the federal Access to Information Act should cover all of the federal government, including both government-controlled and government-funded areas.” The principle here is quite simple: where taxpayers' money is being spent, the public deserves accountability and transparency.

To address such an extension of the act, the Information Commissioner stated that “The use of criteria as a way to determine which entities should be subject to the Act is a rational approach to coverage, as it promotes predictability with respect to which entities are subject to the Act.” Moreover, it guarantees that institutions performing similar functions are also subject to it. Her criteria included whether an entity is covered because it is publicly controlled in whole or in part by the government; whether it performs public functions under federal jurisdiction because it has power to regulate and set standards under federal jurisdiction because it is charged with executing federal policy; whether it is established by federal statute; or whether it is one of the many covered by the Financial Administration Act.

The government has undertaken a review of Canada's access to information regime and has made a first attempt at updating the act. We are disappointed that the President of the Treasury Board has ignored many of the committee's recommendations. What could have been a good start on a worthy project has become something of a disappointment to the members, witnesses, and the Information Commissioner herself, who contributed to a detailed study on the topic. The President of the Treasury Board seems to expect extraordinary credit for these meagre steps that do not seem likely to fix all of the problems in an access to information system that is widely described by critics as broken.

This morning, the minister made it out as if Bill C-58 would instantly transform Canada into a world leader in access to information. That is simply not the case. Many of the problems will remain in place. Comparatively, we have a country like Serbia, which was not even a sovereign nation but part of a federation under a communist dictatorship in 1983 when our act was brought in. It is ranked ahead of Canada by international observers. This is not a credit to the current system. As well, we can compare to countries like Sweden that have had access to information law for 250 years. Witnesses could not believe that in Canada it would take months and months to get information that would routinely be released in 24 hours in countries like that.

The government is trying to take far too much credit for this reform. I urge the minister to reconsider Bill C-58 and correct its many deficiencies. I encourage the new members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to take advantage of review stage and amend it. Canada indeed deserves an open and accountable government, with a sensible and comprehensive access to information regime. We deserve better than Bill C-58.

I will not support this bill. To do so would be to reward the government for breaking its election promises and taking credit for window dressing, which it has described as a grand and comprehensive solution.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

1:25 p.m.


The Speaker Liberal Geoff Regan

The hon. for Calgary Rocky Ridge will have three minutes remaining when this bill is next before the House, as it is now time for private members' business.

It being 1:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's Order Paper.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

1:30 p.m.


Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

moved that Bill C-326, an act to amend the Department of Health Act (drinking water guidelines), be read the first time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague, the member for Charlottetown, for seconding this bill.

Water is a solvent. That means it picks up lots of substances and contaminants, some of which can be hazardous to public health, while others may be benign.

Water is a universal solvent. There is much that dissolves in water. Therefore, it is important to understand what and how much is in the water we drink that is capable of causing us harm. No doubt the popular assumption is that every glass of treated water is the same, that it is has the same composition and quality. In fact, the contents vary depending on the specific source water, and water sources vary geographically.

A 2006 report by the David Suzuki Foundation found that 53, that is 75%, of the guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality for chemical contaminants have weaker acceptable limits than at least one of the countries included in the comparison or than the World Health Organization's limits. In other words, Canada's maximum acceptable concentrations were lower than at least one country in the comparative survey. The most substantial differences were observed in comparing Canadian guidelines for pesticides to those in Australia and the European Union. The aim of Bill C-326 is to strengthen the quality of Canada's drinking water over the long term by requiring that Health Canada, in developing its recommendations for Canada's drinking water guidelines, takes account of any higher standards in any OECD country.

The rise of emerging contaminants, some potentially cancer causing, others possible endocrine disruptors, requires that the government consider best practices in comparable countries when developing Canada's drinking water guidelines. Also, it is imperative that the public be aware of whether and why the government may have rejected a superior standard from another OECD country.

Bill C-326 aims to instill more rigour, accountability, and transparency in the development of drinking water guidelines in Canada by requiring Health Canada to conduct periodic reviews of drinking water standards in other advanced countries. The bill would require that the government, after comparing specific Canadian standards with another country's higher standard for a particular contaminant, publicly justify why Canada is not adopting that other country's superior standard, or conversely why we need to.

Bill C-326 is inspired by the work of the environmental NGO Ecojustice, which produces report cards on the state of Canada's drinking water. It has called for Canada's maximum allowable limits, or MACs, for specific contaminants in drinking water to be as high as the highest in any OECD country.

The intent of this bill is not to make Canadians worry about the quality of their drinking water. Of course, we all know that there are problems with the water supply in first nations communities, and I am very proud that the government has decided to commit the resources to end all drinking water advisories for first nations by 2021.

Municipal tap water is safe. Major multinationals like Coke and Pepsi, which sell bottled water under the Dasani and Aquafina brands respectively, actually get their water from publicly owned municipal systems, not from glacial lakes or pure groundwater. They draw water from the municipal systems of Mississauga, Brampton, Calgary, and Vancouver.

However, it will come as a surprise to many watching this debate that there is no national drinking water legislation in this country that guarantees all citizens a legal right to clean drinking water. What is more, drinking water standards are not consistent across the country. They vary by province and territory.

Our unique federal system makes addressing a matter of national concern as vital as ensuring consistent and high drinking water standards for all Canadians a challenge, which calls on us to smartly and creatively address the issue within the existing constitutional framework. In Canada, water is constitutionally a provincial resource. Authority and responsibility for water, including drinking water, falls to the provinces. The federal government's jurisdiction is limited to drinking water in first nations, on ships, planes, and trains, national parks, and in National Defence facilities.

While Health Canada does not enjoy authority to impose legally binding drinking water standards across the country, it does have a role to play in developing provincial and territorial standards, namely through research, analysis, and evidence-based recommendations. This is why Bill C-326 invokes the Department of Health Act.

Briefly, Health Canada and the federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water develop and publish the guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality. Provincial and territorial governments then voluntarily adopt these guidelines, which they manage and enforce at their own discretion.

A specific guideline may include a number of different elements, including a maximum allowable concentration, which is a numerical value that describes a safe level of exposure to a particular contaminant over a lifetime of water consumption. In other words, this is the threshold above which human exposure to a contaminant in drinking water is deemed unacceptable in terms of known or suspected adverse health effects.

In establishing MACs, Health Canada relies almost exclusively on the review of published literature that includes toxicological information on a contaminant, and information on the treatment options that exist with respect to that contaminant. For this purpose, the department gathers information from academic articles, conference proceedings, and materials produced by other other jurisdictions. Consequently, guidelines may not necessarily be developed based on the most relevant or latest scientific evidence. In cases where there is no usable evidence available, there may be no guidelines at all.

Drinking water committee members, namely the provinces and territories, provide input to the discussion on guidelines. They will, for example, raise the technical and economic feasibility around achieving a specific guideline value or raise the real risk that the contaminant poses. In some cases, it may not pose a significant risk, and therefore a guideline may not be in order.

In reality, what we have in Canada is a patchwork of laws and regulations in an area that intuitively, to most Canadians, should involve a standardized national approach. Thus, only eight of Canada's 13 provinces and territories have established legally enforceable drinking water standards. What is more, only 16 of 94 guidelines are applied uniformly across the country. Also, discrepancies exist along rural and urban lines where larger communities test for a wider range of contaminants than do smaller communities.

What we have here in Canada is a federal system tailored to our geographic, cultural, economic, and regional realities. This system, which is uniquely ours and is tailored to our needs, is something we need to learn to live with. Bill C-326 aims to work within our current constitutional framework.

The current constitutional framework is the context in which I have introduced Bill C-326, a bill that works to move us closer to more or less consistent high-quality drinking water standards for Canadians, wherever they may live. The nature of Canada's drinking water regime can also be understood by comparing it with the drinking water regimes in other countries, notably the United States and European Union countries.

In the U.S., drinking water is regulated on a federal level through the Safe Drinking Water Act. Legally enforceable national regulatory limits exist for many contaminants. Some call this the “cookbook numbers approach”, because the system is focused on implementing specific numerical thresholds for an array of contaminants. In addition to legally binding limits, the EPA has non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants with aesthetic and/or cosmetic impacts.

Importantly, the EPA is required every five years to publish a contaminant candidates list for contaminants that may require future regulation. Every five years, the EPA must select five contaminants from the list and make decisions on regulations pertaining to them. The agency is also required to monitor at least 30 unregulated contaminants every five years. Publishing this list is a major strength of the U.S. system, from the standpoint of ensuring transparency, accountability, and progress in improving drinking water.

The EPA bases drinking water regulations on the results of scientific studies. This may have something to do with the more litigious nature of the American legal system, which provides an incentive to use science to better defend against possible future court action. While the EPA only regulates contaminants for which it has sufficient data, it continues to collect information and conduct research to fill data and information gaps where it lacks sufficient information to make a regulatory determination.

The European system uses the precautionary principle to establish drinking water guidelines. The general premise of the precautionary principle is that substances with unknown health effects should be kept to the lowest possible exposure, especially in cases where health- and environmental-impact data are lacking.

Canada's drinking water standards are not firmly rooted in the precautionary principle. It has been said that Canada uses the precautionary principle selectively. In general, drinking water regulations and management activities in Canada prioritize contaminants that pose the greatest risk to public health; that is, microbial contaminants such as E. coli, whose effects are immediate and can be deadly. In Canada, the monitoring of known and emerging contaminants in drinking water pales in comparison to the U.S., the EU, and Australia, even though Canada and Australia take similar approaches to drinking water at the national level in that they both establish mere guidelines, as opposed to legally binding standards.

In particular, Canada lacks drinking water guidelines for suspected endocrine-disrupting compounds found in plastics, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products, such as cosmetics and toothpaste. One reason Canada lacks guidelines for many pharmaceuticals and personal care products suspected of being endocrine disrupters is related to Health Canada's needing scientific information on health effects and the capabilities of treatment technologies before it will initiate a process to establish a MAC. Hopefully, by encouraging more study and analysis of discrepancies in contaminant standards between Canada and other advanced countries, Bill C-326 would encourage Health Canada to commission more primary studies on emerging contaminants with, say, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council or Canadian universities. Even where MACs exist in Canada's drinking water guidelines, these appear to be less stringent than those of peer countries.

Simple measures are sometimes the most effective in creating change in complex areas of public policy. Sometimes it is not the most elaborate, detailed, and legal solution that bears fruit. I do not mean to elicit a partisan reaction, but I think this is an interesting example. The government decided to change the way senators are appointed as a way of bringing broad change to the nature of the Senate. This was a very simple measure. It was very simple and very different from the many elaborate models that had been proposed over the years that were seemingly not workable.

Bill C-326 takes a similar approach. By requiring that Health Canada better monitor and publicly report on comparisons between Canada's drinking water guidelines and those in countries similar to Canada, the bill aims to spur progress in achieving, in the words of Dr. David Boyd, in the Suzuki Foundation report entitled The Water We Drink, “national standards for drinking water quality that are equal to or better than the highest standards provided in any other industrialized nation.”

Hopefully, Bill C-326 would, at the same time, contribute to the goal of ensuring that first nations, like all Canadians, can access drinking water that meets the highest international standards. The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, adopted by the previous government, essentially defers to provincial regulations for drinking water for first nations. Provincial regulations are influenced by the guidelines for drinking water quality. It is intended, therefore, that through its influence on these national guidelines, Bill C-326 would, among other things, impact positively on the quality of first nations' drinking water in the long run.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.


Romeo Saganash NDP Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Lac-Saint-Louis for his speech on an issue that I believe is one of the most important issues facing every country on this planet, including Canada. Drinking water is a basic right, which is why all countries, including ours, must have strict standards.

Canada is one of the world's richest countries, yet here it is 2017, and there are still indigenous communities that do not have access to safe drinking water or that have problems with their water supply systems and are regularly under boil water advisories, as I mentioned yesterday in question period. There are currently 172 communities under such advisories.

At the time the government began issuing advisories, there were 159 communities with drinking water problems.

One of the key promises the Liberal Party made during the 2015 campaign was to eliminate those advisories within five years, but according to the David Suzuki Foundation study mentioned by the member for Lac-Saint-Louis, the government is nowhere near resolving these issues in indigenous communities as promised.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.


Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question. I took careful note of the question he asked yesterday during question period. I have been studying this issue for some time now.

The government promised to put an end to boil water advisories on first nation reserves by 2021. If I am not mistaken, the government allocated $1.8 billion in budget 2016 to address this issue.

As my dear colleague knows, we have often put a lot of money into building very complex and advanced water purification systems without putting money aside to ensure that they are properly maintained. I believe that the new funding that the government has put on the table will help to maintain existing drinking water plants and build new ones.

According to the department's website, 18 long-term boil water advisories were lifted between November 2015 and January 2017.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.


Anju Dhillon Liberal Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle, QC

Mr. Speaker, could the member propose some concrete solutions to strengthen the quality of our water in Canada? What would he like to see in the federal guidelines regarding our drinking water?

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.


Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to see more comparative analysis with guidelines from other advanced countries that are stronger than ours. That is the starting point. Perhaps we do not need to have the same guideline all cases in our country. Even the World Health Organization will say that guidelines are country-specific, and they have to be tailored to specific situations, geographical and otherwise.

However, the starting point is to do an analysis so we know why we are not emulating a certain guideline. Maybe there is good reason, maybe there is not, but if the Minister of Health is required to produce an analysis, then we as parliamentarians, environmental NGOs, like Ecojustice, the media, and Canadians generally will be able to come to our own conclusions. That kind of accountability is essential in something as important as providing the best possible drinking water for all Canadians.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

September 22nd, 2017 / 1:45 p.m.


Bob Saroya Conservative Markham—Unionville, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss Bill C-326,, an act to amend the Department of Health Act, drinking water guidelines, a private member's bill sponsored by the member of Parliament for Lac-Saint-Louis.

I would like to touch upon a few reasons why I stand in favour the legislation.

We all know that suitable drinking water is necessary for human life. Without water, there is no life. The average adult human body is made up of 65% water. We can all agree that all Canadians deserve better than the bare minimum, especially when it comes to their health.

When we think of Canada, we think of a country that is clean, healthy, and thriving. That is why it is essential our drinking water be of the highest quality.

My riding of Markham—Unionville depends on Lake Ontario for all our drinking water. We are blessed to have one of the Great Lakes at our disposal. In Markham, we have the great fortune of being able to enjoy clean drinking water straight from the tap.

Unfortunately, not everyone has this great fortune. We know all too well the tragedies that come from contaminated water. Far too many examples come to mind when I think of the dangers of a contaminated water supply.

As of July 31, in 101 first nations communities south of the 60th parallel there were 48 short-term drinking water advisories, meaning there was a temporary water quality issue on a specific water system; and 102 long-term drinking water advisories, meaning the advisory had been in place for more than a year.

Among Canada's first nations communities, Ontario has seen the highest number of drinking water advisories. This problem hits close to home for many of us. Reasons for inadequate drinking water include E. coli, inadequate disinfection, and source water contamination, among many others. This is simply unacceptable in Canada.

Many parts of Canada rely solely on ground water for their day-to-day needs. The legislation would ensure that those people have better drinking water. Access to safe, clean, and reliable drinking water is an important priority for Canadians, which is why the previous Conservative government passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in 2013.

No matter where we live, every Canadian should have access to safe, clean, drinking water. I am a very proud Conservative member of Parliament, and I stand in agreement with my colleagues on this legislation.

Bill C-326 will include that the Government of Canada recognize that national guidelines respecting drinking water would be required to ensure such quality.

The bill would amend the Department of Health Act to require the minister of health to conduct a review of drinking water standards in 35 of the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and, if appropriate, to make recommendations for amendments to the national guidelines respecting drinking water.

The creation of a federal-provincial-territorial responsibility will ensure a higher standard of drinking water for Canadians from coast to coast to coast. The federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water is designed to protect the quality of drinking water in Canada. This will be done by developing and maintaining national guidelines.

The bottom line is that Canadians need to have access to safe drinking water. We can all acknowledge the need for the national guidelines to be in keeping with the highest international standards respecting drinking water, keeping in mind that the best interest of Canadians is essential to every parliamentarian.

Accountability is essential to this process. The legislation would require the minister of health to ensure that a review conducted on drinking water standards would be the best deal for our constituents and Canadians overall. Further, the bill would create a stronger partnership between OECD countries and share the best practices which would ultimately allow Canada to have a higher standard of drinking water.

Bill C-326 would require the minister to compare Canada's water quality standards with other OECD countries. This practice currently does not take place. Moreover, Bill C-326 seeks to have the Government of Canada recognize that national guidelines respecting drinking water are required to ensure the highest quality. As well, it seeks to ensure that the main responsibility of the federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water is to protect the quality of drinking water and to develop and maintain national guidelines.

Ultimately, the bill would lead to the creation of better guidelines and the goal of safer water for all Canadians. However, there are a few observations I would like to address.

The first is that some OECD countries do not currently base their guidelines on science, and many contaminants found in other countries are not found in Canada or are already banned. This has potential to become problematic.

The second observation I want to draw attention to is that Canada also shares information with other government agencies, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in the area of drinking water quality. We already share best practices with our southern neighbours, but we can do better.

Third, I would like to highlight that Canada is a World Health Organization collaborating centre on water quality and participates in the development of World Health Organization guidelines for drinking water. As a nation, we hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to water health and safety. The legislation would make water quality in Canada better.

Finally, I would like to add that implementing water quality guidelines falls under provincial and territorial authority. This could hinder the process and create an issue of authority.

Our country has an abundance of fresh water, yet water in many indigenous communities is not safe to drink. Small towns and villages across the country face the issue of accessible water. The water on many first nations reserves is contaminated or hard to access. Oftentimes the treatment systems and infrastructure in place are not acceptable. Supporting the legislation is taking the right steps to address this crisis.

I will always be in favour of sharing best practices and having working partnerships with other nations around the world, especially if the issues in these discussions pertain to my health, that of my family, my constituents, and Canadians as a whole.

The previous Conservative government worked with provinces and territories to establish guidelines to ensure high-quality drinking water in Canada. However, this new legislation would ensure reviews would be done that would keep our drinking water standards among the highest in the world. Canadians deserve that. We need to keep Canadians safe and healthy.

I am confident in speaking in favour of this legislation. Canadians rely on their drinking water, and it must be safe and clean.

My colleagues and I are supporters of the legislation. I understand the bill is widely supported by members of aboriginal communities as well human rights advocates.

Canada is the best country in the world in which to live. We deserve the highest standards when it comes to our most basic necessity, water.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

1:55 p.m.


Romeo Saganash NDP Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

[Member spoke in aboriginal language]


Mr. Speaker, I thank you for this opportunity to speak about an issue that is very important to me, and that is water. Bill C-326 seeks to amend the Department of Health Act so that we may set out guidelines respecting drinking water.

This bill seeks to require the department to ensure that existing drinking water standards in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are upheld and to make any necessary recommendations for Canada in that regard. I wonder why only OECD countries are mentioned. I think that there is also reason to consider including members of the intergovernmental economic organization, namely the World Health Organization. I think we might be able to add them in the future.

When we talk about the major challenges of our time on this planet, when it comes to climate change, protecting the environment, or developing our natural resources around the world, we often forget one aspect that is essential to human survival on earth: water.

I do not know if my colleagues have had the chance to fly over the northern regions of our country. I do almost every week since I have the privilege of representing one of the largest ridings in the country, which covers 54% of Quebec. I like saying that half of Quebec listens to me when I speak. This resource we call water, I see it every time I fly over my riding.

It is important to remember every day that access to drinking water for humans, for Canadians, is a fundamental right. In fact, enforcing this right is part of the mandate of the institution we are all a part of because, which is a public policy mandate. It is important to remember that. We have such an abundance of fresh water in Canada that we must find ways to protect this resource.

During the last election, the Prime Minister of Canada promised to end drinking water advisories in indigenous communities within five years. However, anyone who has ever been in an indigenous community knows that water treatment facilities there are in terrible condition. The promise to fix everything within five years did not take into account the complexity of such an endeavour. There is no easy solution to this problem, a stark reality faced by indigenous communities in a country like Canada. Canada is one of the richest countries on the planet, but its first peoples' living conditions, in many cases, are akin to fourth world conditions.

Members do not need to take my word for it; the hon. member for Lac-Saint-Louis quoted a report from the David Suzuki Foundation that confirms exactly what I am saying, which is that the government is not on track to keep its promise to solve this issue within five years.

That is why I said that that was not a reasonable timeframe. As someone across the way pointed out, the promised investments need to be paid out. After the 2015 election, there were 159 boil water advisories and today there are 172. Despite investments, why is the situation worse now than in 2015, when this government first came to power? I have an answer to that, which I will come back to later.

One thing that people need to understand about indigenous communities is that there is no legislative or regulatory framework that guarantees access to clean drinking water in those communities. As strange as that sounds, it is true. Of course, the previous government passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, but there is no obligation to implement the provisions of that act, given the complexity of the situation, including training people to maintain the facilities that exist in those communities. These things are so complicated that it would have been a long shot to think that the Liberals could keep their election promise from 2015 within the timeframe they had set, unfortunately.

We need to set a number of long-term objectives. We need to have standards similar to those that exist in other countries, for example, standards governing the maximum allowed concentration of microbiological, physical, chemical, and radiological contaminants. Canadians have a right to that as a country. We need to take urgent action to put an end to the boil water advisories in first nations communities. That must be done in co-operation and partnership with indigenous people, not imposed on them as the previous law sought to do. As I have been saying all along, access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right. We could draw from the standards that exist elsewhere, for example, in the European Union, the United States, and Australia.

Earlier, it was said that budget 2016 allocated $1.8 billion for infrastructure. As the member for Lac-Saint-Louis said, money has been allocated. I will admit that that is true.

However, the fact that this is still a problem should indicate that those investments were not enough. There is not enough money. In fact, that additional funding represents less than half of what Neegan Burnside estimates is necessary to put an end to the boil water advisories.

I think I can quote Clayton Leonard here, the lawyer that represented Alberta first nations in this matter:

How many times do you get to reannounce the same amount of money? If you spent $2 billion, and then you find that 73% of first nations still face serious drinking water issues, it's a pretty clear indication it's not enough.

This is not only about boil water advisories, although that is what we hear about most often. A number of communities are under do not consume orders, including Potlotek, Kitigan Zibi in Quebec, Bearskin in Ontario, and Wahta and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

We need to address this problem for all Canadians, but we must never forget this country's first nations.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

2:10 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba


Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, first I want to compliment my colleague. Over the years, I have been able to get to know our caucus chair, and one of his passions I have witnessed is that he truly cares, in a very real and tangible way, about Canada's environment and anything related to water. I have had the opportunity in the past, as have a number of my colleagues in the province of Manitoba, to talk about Lake Winnipeg and how important it is not only to the residents of Winnipeg or Manitoba, but indeed to all of Canada. That water basin crosses international borders.

The member has a very strong passion on this particular file, and I have had the opportunity to ask him, in a nutshell, what he is hoping to achieve with this piece of legislation.

I respect the fact that Canada, most people would think, sets a fairly high bar in terms of water quality, but sticking to what the Prime Minister often says, we can always do better. When I reflect on what the member has brought forward for us to debate this afternoon, he is accepting the Prime Minister's challenge. We can do better.

We think of Canada as a wonderful, vast nation with literally thousands of lakes, rivers, and creeks. We are a water nation in a very real sense. Many would think that we have the best water in the world, and in certain areas of our country I suspect that we do. However, the member brings up a valid concern. Other jurisdictions in the world tend to have different criteria, higher criteria, for ensuring that the quality of their drinking water is of a high standard. It raises the question of whether Canada has some standards or criteria that are lower than those of some other countries, whose standards may be a little better than ours.

I respect the fact that we should not be taking our guidelines for granted and that we should be looking at what is happening here in Canada. We need to recognize that we live in a federal society where we have different levels of government, all of which play an important role. The national government has a leading responsibility in many areas, but it would be irresponsible of us to think that this is solely the national government's responsibility. Provincial jurisdictions also have a very important role, and even our municipalities.

Winnipeg just got a new water system, which was finalized around 2009-2010, and it is an amazing facility. Winnipeg, as a community, has been very blessed in terms of water, such as with Shoal Lake and the beautiful, crystal-clear water that is coming down a pipe based on gravitational pull into the city of Winnipeg. It has been providing water for generations of Winnipeggers and Manitobans. We have been very fortunate with that. It is one of the reasons we have some of the lowest water bills in North America. I still drink from the tap, which is something we can all be somewhat proud of, because in many jurisdictions that is the case. In fact, there are some who would argue that drinking from the tap can be healthier than drinking bottled water.

The point is that we have to take into consideration that, yes, Ottawa plays a role, but provinces, municipalities, and people as a whole all have something to contribute to this area of concern.

We have a fairly competent and able Department of Health. It has been working with the different stakeholders, the provinces and territories, and will continue to do that through the federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water, for example, with the idea of developing and updating guidelines for the quality of Canadian drinking water.

My colleague across the way raised some valid concerns with respect to indigenous people and the important role we play in working in co-operation with their leadership to ensure the quality of water is equal and fair in all regions. The Prime Minister and our government are committed to doing just that. Wherever we can improve the quality, we need to do so.

Members know that we encourage private members of all political stripes to generate ideas and bring them to the floor of the House to challenge us as legislators.

Looking at the specifics of Bill C-326, the government is saying that we need to take into consideration Canadian context and priorities before conducting an internal review, and that is important. My colleague and our caucus chair is very much aware of that.

We need to limit any review of standards and guidelines to those considered to be of leading international agencies and to the guidelines designated as priorities for development in Canada. These are two concerns we need to at least attempt to get more clarification on and possibly address. This could enhance my friend's private member's bill.

There is a lot to be gained on this. If we can tweak the legislation so we can get widespread support within the House of Commons, we would be doing a great service to Canadians.

Stealing from what I started off by saying, whether we listen to the Prime Minister or others who say we need to do better in different areas, this is an area we can do better in. We should look at what the sponsor of the bill hopes to accomplish. I believe this is an expectation that most Canadians would have of the different levels of government, that being a high sense of co-operation, working together to ensure Canada not only demonstrates strong leadership from within our boundaries, but even to countries outside of our boundaries that try to emulate some of the things we have done to provide good quality drinking water.

Often when disasters abroad take place, we will send our military and DART to provide good quality and clean drinking water. We have done this with a number of countries over the years. In good part Canada is perceived as a country that understands the importance of providing good quality water.

I look forward to seeing the bill head to committee. I understand the member is working with the government on ways we can improve the legislation.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

2:20 p.m.


Erin O'Toole Conservative Durham, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is my honour to rise today in debate on this private member's bill, Bill C-326, an act to amend the Department of Health Act. As some of my colleagues have been saying in debate so far on this subject, it is about proposing water quality guidelines for Canada.

As some members have mentioned, this presents a number of challenges because of dual or triple roles of jurisdiction involving water. I am going to talk a bit about why I think it is important, particularly as an Ontario MP who has followed water issues for many years and the challenges faced in Ontario. Then I am going to put forward some thoughts on some of the struggles that Canada is having, particularly with respect to indigenous peoples and access to water. That is something I have been talking about for several years as a member of Parliament.

This bill, in particular, would create guidelines that strive to be the best in the world. For the member to come up with guidelines that he feels are the strongest in the world, he is going to look to all of the member countries of the OECD. This bill would empower an analysis of best practices from those OECD members. The goal, then, is to have a regular review so that the Minister of Health and the federal government can produce guidelines that, by the standards of the OECD, are best practices around the world to ensure there is safety within our municipal water systems.

What is key here is that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over municipal water systems. It does have jurisdiction over first nation reserves and treaty arrangements around the country. Therefore, the federal government does have particular responsibility that it has not been living up to, both parties, going back decades, so that should be kept in mind.

A lot of Canadians take the safety of their water supply a little for granted. As a southern Ontario MP, we live on the shoulders of the Great Lakes, the largest single freshwater supply in the world. Canadians often do not see the true cost of getting that safe water to their taps. There are municipal systems, artesian wells, a whole range. This bill seeks to develop guidelines to try to get municipal levels of government and provinces, which can regulate directly, up to world standard.

We support that on this side. We think it is one of these interesting areas in which the federal government can use its unique role to try to promote best practices, standards, knowing full well it does not have direct jurisdiction for most homes. These standards would then be something that municipal townships, regional municipalities, and cities could benchmark their own performance on. If we follow some of the legislation that has been in some of our provincial legislatures in the last 10 years with respect to water quality, we will find that many have been pushing for more detailed explanation and direct cost recovery by consumers of the cost of getting them that water.

For many generations, we have taken it for granted that water is free. It is not free. The standards and quality assurance needed have a cost. That cost, for many years, in many municipalities, was absorbed into a general tax base assessment to property owners and businesses. However, more and more municipalities, including throughout the Durham region, which I represent, and I know in many other parts of this country, are now starting to itemize what those costs are for water, and in some cases sewer services for Canadians, so they can see that despite our abundance of water, there is a cost to quality assurance. The goal that the member has is to then make sure that all levels of government have an aspirational goal of making sure the country that is most blessed with fresh water also adheres to the highest standards, through comparison on a regular basis to the OECD. I support that aim and the member's work.

As an Ontario MP, I remember the Walkerton inquiry. I watched it closely as a young law student and lawyer to see what could happen when simple processes break down. In Walkerton, Ontario, in the year 2000, seven people died as a result of E. coli contamination of a rural water source.

Twenty-three hundred people fell ill as a result of the Walkerton crisis. That made national and international headlines because we do not normally see an outbreak like that from a municipal water source. Justice Dennis O'Connor, one of the most respected jurists in Ontario, was tasked with heading an inquiry into how that happened. The cause of the E. coli contamination was manure from one of the farm fields in the area getting into the water table and the system, and then chlorine levels and E. coli tests not being applied on a daily basis.

That inquiry showed quite simply how a standard community could have a water system that was taken for granted for years but suddenly becomes derailed and causes deaths. Mr. O'Connor's recommendation, among many others he made, was for more training. The brothers in that case who had run the Walkerton system for many years had little to no training. There was no chlorine testing done daily and there was no positive requirement on this small municipal township to publish to the province the E. coli levels when there was a warning or a bad indication. A positive reporting requirement in Ontario came into place as a result of that.

One of the other findings was that the warnings were not sufficient. Even early, when there was some indication that the water system was the cause of the E. coli sicknesses and death, there was not wide enough public education and warnings to people and so they continued using the water system.

I would invite the member and other members interested in the subject to consult the O'Connor inquiry report, because around the same time, North Battleford, Saskatchewan had a similar E. coli contamination of its water source and 5,800 people fell ill there.

The federal government can provide that aspirational guideline for municipal and provincial partners. Where is our jurisdiction with respect to water? It is with our first nations, and all parliaments in my lifetime have been failing on this front. My friend, the deputy House leader, said that we can do better. We can collectively do better on this front.

The Prime Minister outlined yesterday the challenges facing indigenous peoples in Canada, and there are many. What I would like to see with respect to water is a much more robust plan, because between 120 and 140 first nation communities at any one time have a boil water advisory of some type. Some, like the Neskantaga First Nation near Kenora in my province have had these advisories for years, in this case for 23 years.

There are some unique problems in this and the old ways of doing things are not going to solve them. I had the good fortune of putting out some ideas on this in the last year as a result of consultations with some young, dynamic first nation leaders. I appreciated their advice.

With the private sector, we need to unleash the potential of Canada to solve the problem, not wait for one or two ministers or this party or that party. We should be using crown agencies like Sustainable Development Technology Canada to empower innovative companies to come up with solutions. I sailed on a naval ship that was able to clean and provide drinking water in a confined space for about 300 people. Why do we not adapt these technologies for first nation and remote community use?

I also asked why we are not using Infrastructure Canada and P3 Canada to come up with P3 projects to tackle these more than 100 different projects. They will be different, but some of the same needs will be there. We should empower that approach and allow some of our large international contractors, defence contractors, security contractors to get industrial regional benefit credits for their investments in infrastructure.

This is an area where all parties can work together to acknowledge that we are not doing enough. I admire the Prime Minister's ambition, but so far, I have not seen tangible ideas to solve the problem.

What I would like to do is make sure we support this bill to provide guidelines but work together to make sure that first nations have an effective plan for safe drinking water in the future.

Department of Health ActPrivate Members' Business

2:30 p.m.


The Speaker Liberal Geoff Regan

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

It being 2:30 p.m., the House stands adjourned until next Monday at 11 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 2:30 p.m.)