Ottawa Should Not Leave First Nations to Their Own Devices

Sometimes, self-determination for Indigenous communities can become problematic in meeting certain standards or policy goals, especially if it is done with a hands-off approach from the federal government.  This can […]
Published on June 3, 2021

Sometimes, self-determination for Indigenous communities can become problematic in meeting certain standards or policy goals, especially if it is done with a hands-off approach from the federal government. 

This can be the case when it comes to ensuring all First Nations have access to safe drinking water, which is not a simple matter. It has never been only about providing all the necessary funds (whatever that number may be) and everything will then take care of itself. Proper infrastructure must be constructed and maintained. Authorities must also provide governance of water services and qualified people must provide the services and ensure regular testing. 

Meeting this critical commitment to First Nation communities must not come down to which party in power invests the most money in infrastructure. As always, pointing to dollars invested does not mean more communities leave long-term boil-water advisories behind them. 

First Nations must be well served by qualified contractors. If the federal government is acting to ensure that all First Nation communities have access to clean, safe drinking water, it must also ensure that they are served well by those building the services.

But this is not always the case. 

In February of this year, the media reported about the quality of work certain contractors did in some Indigenous communities. They reported allegations of excessive overcharges, deficient work, delays and even racism. Kingdom Construction Ltd. (KCL) of Ayr, Ont., which has worked on at least seven major water and wastewater projects on First Nations, had received about $90 million in funding from the federal government. 

First Nations and all Canadians have a vested interest in ensuring those dollars are spent well. They also have a right to know that we are on track to meet commitments to Indigenous communities. 

Many of the media reports criticized current policies maintained by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) as they seemed to urge First Nations to adopt the lowest bid contractor under a competitive tendering process.

However, when reached for comment, ISC spokespeople pointed out that the policy is about lowest valid bid price. They also pointed out that: “In some instances, the First Nation may choose to conduct a pre-qualifying process of the contractors through public notification, to ensure the contractors bidding on the contract via the tendering process meet a set of minimum qualification requirements.”

However, it does seem that ISC maintains a hands-off approach to these arrangements in the end. 

“Tendering and contracting for community infrastructure-related products, systems and services are led and managed by the respective First Nations,” said ISC spokesperson Danielle Geary.

“If requested by a community, ISC can provide additional support or technical advice as required, as well as funding to support the contracting of consulting and project management services. ISC does not manage contractual relationships between a First Nation and any hired contractor.”

Explaining the ISC’s reasoning, Geary stated: “ISC is committed to supporting the self-determination of First Nations, which means respecting communities’ control over their own infrastructure assets.”

Unfortunately, not all First Nations have access to the same information to make better decisions. There may be a place for a limited role for the federal government, especially if federal money is involved. Some argued this may mean a role for ISC to maintain a list of qualified contractors for communities, but this may not be enough. 

This hands off-approach is also used in the case of Indigenous communities that choose to opt out of Indian Act election laws and regulations and opt into so-called custom regulations. Once a First Nation does this, Ottawa washes its hands of conduct afterward, as ISC will not intervene after that point. However, there are many documented cases of Indigenous leaders engaging in undemocratic behaviour or human rights violations once they adopt new electoral processes. 

So, the sovereignty issue is not so simple. While we aim for the aspirational goal of some form of self-government, the reality is much more complex. Indigenous communities are embedded in complicated legal, political and financial relationships with the Canadian state. We share values, while the government also has commitments to these communities of Canadian citizens. 

In providing safe drinking water, Ottawa should not leave First Nations to their own devices as if they are completely self-sustaining, independent states. It should always grant them some measure of autonomy while encouraging self-reliance, but be conscious that they will sometimes require intervention. 


Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by LuAnn Hunt on Unsplash.

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