Government Should Act to Avoid Native Walkerton Tragedy: First Nations need to work with provincial water regulators

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel


During this recent election campaign, Sydney Garrioch, Liberal candidate and former grand chief of the MKO (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak) – the regional organization covering most northern Manitoba First Nations – raised the matter of deplorable water and sewage systems on many First Nation communities.
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s delivery of 200 water buckets to a remote Manitoba reserve was used to show ‘lack of action’ on the issue.
The political symbolism of the buckets, which Native leaders dubbed ‘slop pails’, however, is no substitute for proper action.
To be clear, lack of water is not the issue, but water quality. Merrell-Ann S. Phare, Executive Director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources stated that more than 90 per cent of First Nation communities are located near or directly beside bodies of water.
In June 2009, the federal government reported 110 First Nation communities across Canada were under a “drinking water advisory.’ At that time, the government indicated that of those 110, about 21 were “high risk” and required immediate action.
There is a myth that Ottawa has been doing nothing. In 2008, the federal government enacted the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan. It invested millions in treatment facility construction and renovation, operation and maintenance of facilities, as well as the training of operators. It meant tangible improvements. For example, in 2006, there were 193 high-risk drinking water systems but they have been reduced to 49. Moreover, 18 out of the 21 communities identified as priorities have been removed from the list.
Like most challenges affecting First Nations, jurisdictional boundaries create a legislative gap. Stringent policies affecting drinkable water apply at the provincial level in Canada. However, reserves are under federal authority, and there are no federal laws regulating drinking water.
Right now, there is a patchwork of standards and responsibilities for delivering safe water on reserves shared between band councils, Indian and Northern Affairs, Health Canada, and Environment Canada.
Although the federal government introduced a protocol for safe drinking water, a legislative framework with teeth was needed to insure compliance and consistent water testing. 
Thus, a Native version of the Walkerton tragedy could occur.
In 2010, the federal government introduced Bill S-11, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which enabled Ottawa to develop binding water safety regulations.
However, when the government was defeated, this bill died. The Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal organizations opposed the bill. They argued it created laws without infrastructure and violated Aboriginal and treaty rights.
When the bill is re-introduced, the federal government should model it after legislation governing matrimonial property rights, another legislative gap that left divorced First Nation women vulnerable without provincial or federal laws ensuring equal division of assets. In that instance, interim federal rules were applied until the First Nation adopted its own. A similar model should apply to water safety.
The Walkerton tragedy led to a multi-barrier approach placing independent measures to protect water at all stages. Similar regulations should be adopted and continue after the First Nation assumes jurisdiction.
First Nations should not fear qualified provincial regulators but allow them access to First Nation water systems.
Native communities should work with nearby municipalities. John Graham of the Institute for Governance, an Ottawa-based think tank, argued that First Nation communities should not become “isolated islands” dotted across the province and should allow themselves access to the variety of training and certification organizations available to their neighbours. These communities ought to contract easily with provincial organizations or neighbouring municipalities to provide water for them.
Lastly, First Nations should avoid the politics of fear peddled by organizations like the Council of Canadians. They opposed Bill S-11 on the grounds that it opened the door to water ‘privatization.’ But, if private providers can provide lower cost service at superior quality, what is the issue?
Cost should be a concern for band governments, just as others. A water plant that services 600 people can cost over $6 million and requires $150,000 a year to maintain and operate. These costs increase in northern locations. Like all governments, First Nations should choose the supplier that works best for them.
All players must act now to avoid future tragedy.