Safe drinking water on First Nations: Providing solutions, not playing politics

Blog, Water, Joseph Quesnel

Sydney Garrioch, the Liberal Party candidate in Churchill constituency, has raised the critical issue of water safety on First Nations. However, Garrioch is using the issue for partisan gain and not clear ideas for reform.

Apparently, the Island Lake Tribal Council asked for help in solving water and sewage issues on many isolated reserves but received 800 water containers and 1,000 of what are being called plastic “slop pails.”

On the issue of water quality, the problem is there is a legislative gap when it comes to safe water on reserves. At present, bands have to deal with a patchwork of federal policies, administrative guidelines, and funding arrangements. The absence of a federal legislative framework is what is creating issues.

The Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, Environment Canada, and Health Canada are responsible for delivering safe drinking water on reserves.

First Nations communities, through their chiefs and councils, are responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of their water systems, for which they assume 20% of the costs. They are also responsible for ensuring that water systems are operated by trained operators, for monitoring drinking water quality and for issuing drinking and boil water advisories.

But, the federal government had introduced legislation to create standards in regards to safe water on reserve (Bill S-11). The problem, as always, is the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) expressed its opposition to the bill in its current form.

The AFN’s standard line to oppose most bills affecting reserves is that it violates Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Why people on reserves should be concerned by the tactic used by their own representative organization is it places political grandstanding ahead of the the health and safety of reserve residents.

The federal government has had years to hone water safety regulations. Since the Walkerton tragedy in Ontario, Ottawa has developed stringent laws for source water protection.

Infrastructure and training are essential, but the lack of enforceable regulations, instead of weak ‘guidelines’, is the primary issue.

The Institute on Governance presented some interesting ideas on how governance and regulatory reform would lead to better water safety systems for reserves:

Rather than play politics with the issue, Native leaders and organizations should work with Ottawa in addressing what could be the most pressing moral problem in Canada.