Would You Drink This Water?

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

When one ponders the crisis so many First Nations communities are facing with the quality of water, one can’t help but think of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

The ironic dilemma of the mariner is obvious in more than 90 percent of First Nations communities in Canada, most of them are located close to large bodies of water, yet so few can deliver clean water to their citizens.

Ottawa and Band Councils need to get serious about water quality in First Nation communities. People deserve clean drinking water.

The federal government got into hot water in early February for lack of progress on improving First Nation water systems, after the Liberal government made a big deal about ending boiling water advisories on First Nations during the 2015 campaign.

Indigenous Services Canada, in fact, had previously been committed to ending long standing  boil water advisories in First Nation communities by March 2021 at the latest.

However, I have discovered that although 40 advisories were eliminated since November 2015, 26 new advisories have surfaced. Right now, there are 91 advisories.

But, this certainly was a problem the Liberals inherited from the previous Conservative governments. Between 2006 and 2014, the federal government invested about $3 billion to help  First Nations to improve and manage their water and wastewater systems.  

A report by then-Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), found that many First Nation water systems had substantial improvements in their risk levels over this time period.

One of the biggest unsung successes of the Conservative government was the passage of the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in 2013. This Act was to fill the legislative gap in water quality regulations on First Nations.

In fall 2014, the federal government initiated a period of regulatory development under the Act. According to spokespeople for the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the government was working on developing regulations jointly with Health Canada and First Nation partners on a region-by-region basis.

But, hardly any Canadians know that when the new government was elected in 2015, Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, was instructed to pause regulatory development?  Rather, the government put the whole Act under legislative review, which means that the regulations are still not implemented.

According to a spokesperson, the federal government is still talking with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and other Indigenous organizations to come up with “possible amendment or repeal of the current legislation and the development of a new legislative framework.”  While these talks are taking place, people are still boiling their water before bathing their children.

So, why is the government working with the AFN and other First Nation lobby groups behind closed doors? Sadly, the federal Liberals support band chiefs and their lobby groups rather than grassroots First Nations citizens.  

The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act lists all the regulations the Governor in Council may make on the recommendations of the minister. The very first regulation says that they are  responsible for “the training and certification of operators of drinking water systems and wastewater systems.”

Of course, the proper training of operators, especially those who manage the wastewater systems, is critical to improving the drinking water problems in First Nations. It is crucial that government not gut legislation that allows for regulations for those fundamental operators.

The solution is not to dump more funds into systems without proper regulations.

John Graham, then with the Institute for Governance, argued that the answer is not for First Nations to be “isolated dots” across Canada. But, First Nations need to work with neighboring non-Aboriginal communities, on water services or, at least, using the provincial certification programs that are available.

The answers to this seemingly intractable problem is quite simple, but governments, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, must seek them out. Gutting current legislations designed to help fix the problems and simply increase funding will only make them worse.