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Water crisis

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Too many First Nations reserves living with contaminated water in third-world conditions

Canada’s First Nations are facing a water crisis—in fact, it has been going on for many years. Twenty-three of the 49 First Nations reserves in this province are on a boil-water notice—Bragg Creek has been on one since 2000. Another reserve has a cyanobacterial bloom (blue-green algae) and the O’Chiese First Nation in Bremmerville cannot consume its water at all.

“A lot of indigenous communities are facing development projects such as oil and gas drilling or pipelines, which really impacts the water quality in their community,” says Emma Lui, a water campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

Another problem is that the infrastructure for water delivery to homes and wastewater removal is decaying on many reserves, or in some cases is non-existent. The federal government’s solution was Bill S-11—”The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act”—which died on the table when 2011’s federal election was called; it has been reintroduced as Bill S-8. The Council of Canadians and First Nations leaders are concerned about Bill S-8 because First Nations were not consulted as it was being drafted and they do not agree with some of the clauses within.

“Prior to being reintroduced as Bill S-8, six nations in Alberta had issues relative to Bill S-11 as their elders respectfully stated, ‘Water is not something we gave up.’ One of the issues of Bill S-11 at that time—of course which is now Bill S-8—and continues to be the case is when it was first presented there was no doubt you felt the overtures of Walkerton and serious liability issues. And it appears now with Bill S-8, the federal government is trying to download their fiduciary responsibility as well as their liability issues onto First Nations,” says Chief Cameron Alexis, Alberta’s Regional Chief with the Assembly of First Nations.

Alexis compares the lack of consultation with First Nations leaders to the old cliché of father-knows-best. “The federal government, and even the provincial government to a degree, are bringing the First Nations leaders into the discussions on the 11th hour when the pen is dry; it’s too late. When the Supreme Court ruled that consultation must happen, they never told federal government, ‘You will change the goal posts at will.'”

Articles 29 and 32 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People state that they have the right to protect their environment with assistance from the governing state, and the governing state needs to consult with them and obtain free and prior consent before moving forward on any project that will affect their land. This does not happen between the Canadian government and First Nations communities.

Alexis explains that First Nations are not opposed to safe drinking water or managing wastewater, but they do not agree to have the responsibility and liability for that water to be placed on their communities.

“The issue is, should there be a loss of life because of mismanagement of the wastewater or inadequate water facilities—for example the water gets contaminated—who’s going to get litigated?” Alexis asks. “It’s the chief and councils. They could not afford litigations. It could perhaps be in the millions of dollars. So it’s a system set up for failure.”

He adds that Alberta alone needs $162 million to deal with the situation. “If somebody gives you 20 litres of water and says, ‘Your water problem is solved. Leave me alone.’ Are you going to accept that?

“If you want to finally deal with the situation, you’ve got to invest; you’ve got to invest in the communities and deal with it,” Alexis notes. “The other issue that chiefs of Alberta had is downloading that responsibility to the provinces and saying we’ve got to follow the rules of the Alberta government’s water regulations. That’s a moot point as well. In some instances the Alberta government does not have policy in place to deal with these things.”

Lui agrees that funding to update water systems is a major concern. “The Bill calls for high standards in First Nations communities, which is what we want and what we support, but without providing any funding it’s really difficult for communities to meet those requirements. There were some changes from Bill S-11 to Bill S-8, but one of the things that did remain was communities being penalized for not meeting the requirements. So that’s really concerning when you’re talking about access to water and the human right to water.”

Since 2011, $330.8 million has been announced by the federal government to be allocated to First Nations communities across Canada to deal with water issues—although nothing has happened yet—but by their own assessment, the federal government has found that in reality, $4.7 billion is needed. Alexis calls the splitting of hundreds of millions of dollars between 634 nations a band-aid solution. The Council of Canadians is calling for a 10-year plan to invest $4.7 billion into fixing water conditions and infrastructure on reserves across Canada. The national assessments also found that 73 percent of the water and wastewater systems on First Nations reserves were high risk.

“There was a base $1.2 billion that the national assessments called for, which is actually just to bring First Nation communities up to the federal government’s own protocol. What’s concerning also is the federal government has only been allocating $165 million for the last five years or so per year, so the gap between what they’re funding and what’s actually needed even to meet their own protocols is very wide,” Lui explains, adding that over 100 communities are consistently under water advisories—worse than boil-water advisories because the water in these cases is still contaminated with chemicals even after boiling.

There is a risk of some First Nations communities turning to private companies to help them meet the high standards the bill would impose if the government does not give sufficient aid. It’s called a public-private-partnership fund, or P3, where the government will provide funding to communities conditional on them entering into an agreement with a private company. Some First Nations communities have already applied for a P3.

“Privatization has got to be nation to nation decisions. Privatization may work in some instances and in others it won’t,” Alexis says. “Privatization could be a very dangerous thing. Who is going to control that water, who’s going to pay for that water and who’s going to control the cost of that water? Where is the water going to come from? There’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered.”

Alexis wants the federal government to be honest with Canadians about what conditions exist on First Nations reserves.

“Tell the people exactly what’s going on. In some nations you still have third-world conditions because in the broad spectrum, every nation’s not the same,” Alexis points out. “Some municipalities have far more than others. And then some of them do not have proper running water. And if you want to deal with this, you’ve got to go right to the source of the problem.”

He wants Canadians to become educated on what treaties are, who the various tribes are, what was given up in the treaties and what the treaty articles specifically called for. “Even in Treaty Six in Alberta, as an example, there’s a medicine chest clause, but yet there’s claw-backs on our health rates. For us, our ancestors gave up this country to live in harmony, in lieu of that there were agreements called treaty instruments and they haven’t been dealt with.”

Growing up, Alexis lived on a reserve off and on. “I was raised by my grandparents and they had no running water. There was a hand pump, no sanitation—there was an outhouse. When the pump froze, we got water from the spring that was about a kilometre away. That’s how we lived our lives. Late ’70s to early ’80s is when we started getting infrastructure for sewer and water.

“Up to the ’60s, First Nations weren’t even allowed to hire legal teams. But since that time, in the Supreme Court aboriginal people have won over 170 cases, but have they been implemented? To a large degree, no. People always wonder, ‘Why are they always complaining? Why are we throwing all this money to them?’ If you go to the communities you’ll see what I’m talking about. If you turn on the tap, yes the water is coming out, but in some cases it’s contaminated. It’s dirty. You’ve got infrastructure that’s decaying and these things need to be dealt with and I believe that you should adequately fund rather than piecemeal it.”
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