Actions and Commitments

Drinking Water Advisories

Result in sight for long-delayed water law

June 11, 2024

MP Patty Hajdu addresses the press gallery in the Parliament’s foyer in 2018. Photo by Alex Tétrault/Canada’s National Observer 

Canada’s National Observer: Ottawa is one step closer to awarding First Nations control and power over their water supply as a First Nations water bill is headed to committee this Wednesday.

Last week, Bill C-61, the First Nations Clean Water Act, was passed by the House through a unanimous motion and is now destined for the Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee. Patty Hajdu, Minister of Indigenous Services, was enthusiastic about the “happy news” following what she referred to as “obstruction” from the Conservative caucus. 

Hajdu has repeatedly referred to the bill as “another tool” for First Nations to have sovereignty over their waters, empowering them to fight against environmental racism. It is a legacy bill for the Liberal government and sits alongside their promise to lift all boiled water advisories on First Nations. Since 2015, 144 boiled water advisories have been lifted, with 29 still in effect.

The bill proposes a new water commission to be run by First Nations and funded by Ottawa. The commission will help increase capacity so that all First Nations can monitor their water for pollution and safety.

The bill will also mandate that Ottawa, as well as the provinces and territories, ensure stronger protections for bodies of water that feed into First Nations’ lands and that First Nations have the same water quality rights as Canadian municipalities. 

The Clean Water Act is one of Ottawa’s first co-developed bills with First Nations. It replaces a controversial act passed during the Harper era, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which was criticized in an Assembly of First Nations-led review for its lack of accompanying funding, insufficient engagement and lack of protection of source water, among other issues. 

“It didn’t at all acknowledge the tools that were required for First Nations people to actually be able to deliver on clean water for their members,” Hajdu told Canada’s National Observer

Indigenous leadership called for its repeal and replacement, which the Liberals enacted in 2022. 

Now that history is in front of mind for Lori Idlout, NDP MP for Nunavut, who sits on the Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee. 

Idlout will bring First Nation witnesses who were critical of the Liberals’ co-development process into committee.

“So many successive federal governments have been failing to uphold Indigenous peoples’ rights, and getting this legislation can help inch that path forward,” she said. 

So far, debates in Parliament around the legislation have been heated. Earlier this year, Saskatchewan MP Kevin Waugh claimed in the House that First Nations were burning down water treatment plants because they were frustrated with the Liberals.” Waugh later apologized for his remarks, which Chief Mark Fox of Piapot First Nation called “baseless” and “grossly disrespectful.” 

Weiler expects the bill to finish its committee study by early fall and move to the Senate by the end of the calendar year. Still, there is concern that amendments can weaken First Nation jurisdiction. 

Weiler hopes to see amendments that specify language so current and future governments do not “shirk responsibility.” That’s also why Idlout hopes to cite international law, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the bill.

“Colonialism and the genocidal policies continue to impact First Nations,” Idlout said. 

“All Canadians must recognize that when First Nations are taking back control of decision-making over water, over matters relating to the children, to land back, it’s a form of reconciliation,” she added. 

— with files from Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative