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Auditor General Report reveals little progress with First Nations drinking water

On the same day that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (now named Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) released their joint work plan with the Assembly of First Nations, Auditor General Sheila Fraser released her final report with Chapter 4 devoted to First Nations issues.

Announcing the release of the joint work plan, INAC Minister John Duncan noted that “Canada and First Nations have an enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and support.” However, the 2011 June Status Report of the Auditor General of Canada (AG Report) tells a different story. Chapter 4 of the Report highlights the ongoing appalling conditions on First Nation reserves, the stark contrast between conditions of First Nation reserves and other communities and the federal government’s repeated failures to address adequately the deplorable conditions on First Nation reserves.

First Nation reserves versus other communities in Canada

The AG Report notes that there is a stark contrast between First Nation reserves and other communities in Canada: “It is clear that living conditions are poorer on First Nations reserves than elsewhere in Canada. Analysis by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) supports this view. In 2010, INAC reported that the index showed little or no progress in the well-being of First Nations communities between 2001 and 2006. Instead, the average well-being of those communities continued to rank significantly below that of other Canadian communities. Conditions on too many reserves are poor and have not improved significantly. In our audits, we have made numerous recommendations concerning federal programs and services for First Nations reserves. In our 2006 May Report, Chapter 5, Management of Programs for First Nations, we found that progress was generally unsatisfactory in implementing the recommendations that are most important to the lives and well-being of First Nations people.”

Structural barriers hampering public services on First Nations reserves

The Report points to four key structural barriers that “severely limit the delivery of public services to First Nations communities and hinder improvements in living conditions on reserves” including:

  • lack of clarity about service levels,
  • lack of a legislative base,
  • lack of an appropriate funding mechanism, and
  • lack of organizations to support local service delivery

The AG Report notes that “Provincial legislation provides a basis of clarity for services delivered by provinces. A legislative base for programs specifies respective roles and responsibilities, eligibility, and other program elements. It constitutes an unambiguous commitment by government to deliver those services. The result is that accountability and funding are better defined…For First Nations members living on reserves, there is no legislation supporting programs in important areas such as education, health, and drinking water. Instead, the federal government has developed programs and services for First Nations on the basis of policy. As a result, the services delivered under these programs are not always well defined and there is confusion about federal responsibility for funding them adequately.”

The Report also calls for First Nations “to co-lead discussions on identifying credible funding mechanisms that are administratively workable and that ensure accountable governance within their communities.”

AG Report highlights on First Nations drinking water

Last year, the UN passed two resolutions recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. The second resolution passed the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) recognized the right to water and sanitation as already entrenched in international law. Catarina de Albuquerque, noted the significance of the HRC resolution and said that “this means that for the UN, the right to water and sanitation is contained in existing human rights treaties and is therefore legally binding.”

However, the AG Report reveals how Canada has failed at upholding First Nations right to safe and clean drinking water.

The 2005 Auditor General Report outlined that:

  • First Nations communities did not benefit from a level of drinking water protection comparable to that available to people living off reserves because provincial legislation and regulations are not applied on reserves.
  • The federal government had not acted even though it had primary jurisdiction to regulate water supply on reserves.
  • First Nations communities did not have a regulatory regime to govern drinking water.
  • There were no statutes or regulations to require monitoring of the quality and safety of drinking water on reserves.
  • In most First Nations communities, drinking water was tested less frequently than recommended under the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.
  • INAC had found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water in three quarters of the drinking water systems on reserves.

The 2011 report assessed “actions taken by INAC and Health Canada to implement a regulatory regime” and “whether INAC had reduced the number of drinking water systems posing a significant risk to the safety of drinking water.”

The AG Report noted “satisfactory progress in the steps taken thus far to address recommendations concerning the introduction of a regulatory regime for drinking water on reserves .” However, the Report does not provide many details on the regulatory system, which was Bill S-11, nor does it mention the controversy that surrounded Bill S-11. There were significant concerns on Bill S-11 from many organizations including the Assembly of First Nation, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Environment Law Association.

The 2011 Federal budget boasts that “Since 2006, the Government has taken action to support families and help meet the needs of all Canadians, including…Investments to support priorities in First Nations education, child and family services, water and housing and First Nations and Inuit health, as well as Aboriginal skills development and training.”

However, the AG’s Report puts a spotlight on the government’s failure to uphold First Nations’ rights and provide critical services on First Nation reserves. Regarding the safety of drinking water, the Report highlighted that little progress had been made:

  • Between 2006 and 2010 INAC had conducted only 25 of 80 required annual inspections and 47 of 80 risk evaluations in our sample.
  • For the 2008–09 fiscal year, Health Canada reports that its data indicated that water at First Nations community sites was tested less often than recommended under departmental procedures, which are based on the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. At only 40 percent of community sites, for example, bacteriological sampling was performed at the recommended frequency.
  • In its 2006–07 Report on Plans and Priorities, INAC had planned to reduce all high risk systems and the majority of medium-risk systems by April 2008. INAC reported that it had reduced the proportion of high-risk systems from 29 percent to 6 percent by March 2010, while the proportion of medium-risk systems rose from 46 percent to 53 percent. The figures may not be accurate because the ratings were not always based on up-to-date inspections. INAC reported that more than half of drinking water systems on reserves still pose a medium or high risk to the community members they served.

Actions speak louder than words

Just 6 days before the release of the AG Report, Governor General of Canada David Johnston read the throne speech which claimed that the federal government was committed to Aboriginal issues stating that: “Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are central to Canada’s history, and our Government has made it a priority to renew and deepen our relationship. The contribution of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples will be important to our future prosperity. Concerted action is needed to address the barriers to social and economic participation that many Aboriginal Canadians face. Our Government will work with Aboriginal communities, provinces and territories to meet this challenge. It will help open the door to greater economic development by providing new investments in First Nations Land Management. It will promote access to clean water and the deployment of clean energy technology in Aboriginal and northern communities.”

The scathing AG Report calls into question the sincerity of these words. Recent reports that the Harper government began gathering and sharing intelligence on First Nations in 2006 with the purpose of managing unrest in First Nation communities also calls into question their sincerity in working with Aboriginal communities.

In an interview with the Hill Times, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo calls for significant changes: “These are issues that I’ve been raising and First Nations leaders have been raising for a long time, but now we have a report that is really beyond reproach…What has plagued us up until this point, and what the Auditor General has been inferencing, is that the status quo must be completely transformed and smashed, and Ottawa should no longer work in isolation… First Nations and governments must jointly design a way forward.”

While the Harper government committed to focusing on Aboriginal issues in the throne speech and has issued a joint work plan with the Assembly of First Nations, people will need to see significant improvements on reserves and a drastic change in their relationship with First Nations before they begin believe what has been up to now the empty words from the Harper government.