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14th December 2023
Feds introduce bill to set drinking water standards in First Nations

Chief of community under a 28-year boil-water advisory says he wasn't consulted

Olivia Stefanovich CBC Posted: Dec 11, 2023 1:30 PM PST Last Updated: December 11

The federal government's proposed new bill to set drinking water standards in First Nations is being met with mixed reactions.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu introduced Bill C-61 on Monday in the House of Commons. The proposed law is intended to protect fresh water sources, create minimum national drinking water and wastewater standards in First Nations, and provide sustainable funding for maintaining water quality.

It also lays the foundation for a new First Nation-led water institution to support communities the First Nations Water Commission.

Chief Chris Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation, a remote fly-in community about 450 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont., told CBC News he's hoping the bill can protect other communities from what his community has experienced.

Neskantaga is the First Nation with the longest drinking water advisory in Canada 28 years and counting.

"Hopefully, once there's a boiled water advisory, it will get addressed right away as opposed to waiting 28 years," Moonias said.

But Moonias said he feels he was kept in the dark about the legislation.

He said he didn't get a chance to review the bill before it was tabled. He said he wanted the government to send an official up to Neskantaga to speak to its 300 members.

"They just do whatever they want," Moonias said. "That's colonialism at its best."

The bill comes more than a year after Ottawa repealed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which was introduced in 2013 by the previous Conservative government under prime minister Stephen Harper.

First Nations called for the act's repeal, citing a lack of sustainable funding, infringement of Indigenous rights and a lack of consultation.

Chief Erica Beaudin of Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan called the introduction of the new bill a historic moment.

"It is a start, a beautiful start for all of us to work together," Beaudin said.

"Whether it's on reserve or off, Indigenous people, Indigenous children deserve to be conceived, born and die drinking clean water."

Ottawa was required to introduce the new bill by the terms of the $8 billion drinking water class action settlement for First Nations.

The deal includes $1.5 billion to compensate First Nations and their members who were deprived of clean drinking water for at least one year between November 1995 and March 2024, along with $6 billion for the construction and maintenance of water infrastructure.

The deadline to submit claims for part of the $1.5 billion in compensation is March 7, 2024.

The government said it worked with the Assembly of First Nations to create the bill and held many consultation sessions since 2018, but will not be releasing a list of nations with which it consulted.

Nunavut New Democrat MP Lori Idlout, the NDP's Indigenous critic, said she isn't surprised.

Idlout told CBC News she wants to make sure all First Nations voices are heard before she throws her support behind the bill.

"If you say you're going to co-develop legislation, do it at all levels, not just through national Indigenous organizations," Idlout said.

More resources, input needed

Northwest Angle 33 is a small community about 65 km southwest of Kenora, Ont. of fewer than 200 people.

The community, which draws its water from the Lake of the Woods, just lifted its long-term boil water advisory last June.

"That was really exciting," said Lili Sioui, who has worked as Northwest Angle 33's water operator for the last decade.

"I haven't had to buy water. It's kind of neat to be able to just use it from the tap and I know for sure that I don't have to worry about it."

But Sioui said not everyone in the community celebrated. She said a handful of members still don't receive potable water.

"Even now, we have homes that don't receive good potable water or don't receive any water," she said.

Sioui said she hopes the government's proposed legislation will lead to more resources for First Nations.

She said it's difficult to recruit community members to work as water operators since many go to work in municipalities, where they're paid more.

"It always comes back to money, which is really sad," Sioui said.

The proposed law commits Canada to ensuring sustainable and equitable funding to help keep First Nations people working in their communities.

"For decades, First Nations did not receive the same amount of money as a community of that size to provide clean water in terms of operating dollars, maintenance dollars, training dollars," Hajdu said.

"We've changed that under our government, but this bill would put that into law."

High expectations for proposed legislation

Sioui was the only full-time water treatment operator in Northwest Angle 33 until the community recently hired a new trainee.

She said she follows Ontario's drinking water guidelines.

Both Sioui and her chief, Darlene Comegan, said they want to make sure any changes to those standards are agreed to by First Nations.

"Everything that the government does has an impact on our livelihood and we need to have a say on what's being developed," Chief Comegan said.

Ottawa said it will work with all First Nations to implement the standards. The bill states communities will be able to choose between provincial or federal regulations for drinking water and wastewater.

Ottawa has lifted 143 drinking water advisories in First Nations since 2015. There are 28 advisories remaining in 26 communities.

Moonias said he still holds out hope his community will one day have clean drinking water flowing from its taps, but he's convinced that won't happen with the community's existing treatment plant.

The plant was upgraded in 2018 but Moonias said the community's homes still don't have potable water.

"The problem is that it's not meeting what it's designed to do," he said. "It hasn't met its capacity."

Moonias said he plans to make a request of the government soon for a completely new water treatment plant and distribution system.

"I believe the boil water advisory will hit 30 years," he said.