Winnipeg Free Press: In numerous news stories this week, the federal government’s new legislation aimed at improving water quality in First Nations communities was described as “long awaited.”
That hardly begins to describe the decades of frustration, fury and feelings of betrayal and neglect that preceded Monday’s introduction of Bill C-61, formally described as “an Act respecting water, source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure on First Nations lands.”
Water — and continuing, reliable access thereto — is the most fundamental of life’s necessities. So much so, in fact, that the United Nations designates access to water and sanitation as essential to every person’s health, dignity and prosperity.
And yet, in Canada — a nation ranked No. 2 on the U.S. News/Wharton School’s “2023 Best Countries in the World” list — dozens of First Nations communities remain without access to clean water. What makes this appalling reality even more ignominious is that the Liberal government that so proudly tabled Bill C-61 — also known as the First Nations Clean Water Act — had, among the election promises that brought it to power in 2015, a pledge to eliminate all long-term boil-water advisories on First Nations by March of 2021.
While there’s no denying progress has been made — 143 boil-water advisories have been lifted since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued the aforementioned campaign-trail promise — more than two dozen First Nations communities spread across Ontario and the Prairies remain without reliable access to clean water.
That is, simply put, unacceptable.
In announcing Bill C-61’s introduction, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu described the legislation as the result of intensive collaboration and knowledge-sharing with Indigenous leadership. “First Nations made it clear they must have the tools and powers to protect their inherent right to clean water,” she told assembled media outside the House of Commons. “And this bill … is the first on a new path of law-making together.”
The new legislation comes 18 months after the repeal of the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which was passed in 2013 by the previous Conservative government and was widely criticized for its lack of consultation, its failure to recognize Indigenous rights or to adequately protect source water, along with its lack of adequate and sustainable funding.
While Bill C-61 has the endorsement of Indigenous leadership groups, including the Assembly of First Nations, some individual communities have raised objections because they were not consulted. Imperfect as such apparent oversights leave the bill, however, it still must be viewed as considerable progress on a chronic Canadian problem.
Bill C-61 affirms the right of First Nations to self-government on water-related issues and establishes regulatory pathways to protect source water adjacent to and/or flowing into First Nations. It also commits the federal government to the establishment of a First Nations Water Commission and the provision of funding set out in a settlement agreement related to class-action lawsuits launched by First Nations living under boil-water advisories.
That deal calls for a minimum of $1.5 billion in compensation for First Nations or their members affected by drinking-water advisories lasting more than a year, and $6 billion dedicated to the construction and maintenance of water infrastructure for First Nations.
One hopes Bill C-61 receives swift and unencumbered passage through the necessary parliamentary processes, and that the difficult but necessary work it promises will begin as soon as is practically possible.
Referring to this belated effort to address a seemingly ceaseless human-rights violation as “long awaited” is a listless description that might reasonably be prefaced by “woefully, inexcusably and abominably.”