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Federal budget holds promise of the right to water and sanitation for First Nations in Canada

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow visited Shoal Lake in April 2015, a First Nation that has been without clean drinking water for more than 17 years.

The Council of Canadians has repeatedly called on the federal government to invest $4.7 billion over ten years into First Nations water and wastewater services.

That specific figure is based on a ‘National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems’ conducted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in 2011. That report estimated it would cost $4.7 billion over a ten year period to meet the department’s protocols for water and wastewater services for First Nations communities, including an immediate $1.2 billion to deal with high-risk systems.

Today, the Globe and Mail reports, “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising Tuesday’s budget will deliver ‘historic investments’ to improve the lives of Canada’s indigenous people – funding that will amount to billions of dollars… Senior officials would not provide The Globe with details of the exact amount of money in the budget for First Nations, but they said it will be in the billions of dollars spread over a number of years. …During the election, Mr. Trudeau made sweeping commitments to the country’s indigenous people, including a promise to end boil-water advisories on reserves and remove the 2-per-cent cap on annual funding increases for reserve programs and services. The budget will act on these promises, officials say.”

The article adds, “Some of the money to improve drinking water on reserves is expected to come from promised national funding for green infrastructure.”

On Oct. 5, 2015, Trudeau stated, “We have 93 different communities under 133 different boil water advisories across the country. [Serpent River First Nation] Chief Isadore Day has called for within five years there should be zero, and I’ve told the Chief and I’ve told First Nations many times, we agree with that, and a Canadian government led by me will address this as a top priority because it’s not right in a country like Canada that this has gone on for far too long.” On Dec. 29, 2015, Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett has reaffirmed the Trudeau government’s commitment to make good on this pledge.

If the Trudeau government does allocate the needed funds, it will be making good on an international commitment.

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Regrettably, Canada under the Harper government abstained from that historic vote. Five years later, while Harper was still in power, the UN human rights committee, in its report on Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, commented, “[Canada] should, in consultation with indigenous people, (a) implement and reinforce its existing programmes and policies to supply basic needs to indigenous peoples…”

Today’s Globe and Mail notes, “Aboriginal leaders and mayors say they have been impressed with the level of consultation in the runup to the budget… Over the past month, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has held several private meetings with [Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry] Bellegarde and top officials from the AFN to discuss the funding needs for on- and off-reserve First Nations. Mr. Bellegarde also met top officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and five ministers, including Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.”

Early in the Harper government’s mandate, they established an expert panel on safe drinking water for First Nations. The panel’s November 2006 report stated, “The most insistent theme we heard from First Nations was that the core problem was inadequacy of resources: mainly in terms of funding to run water and sewage systems, and in many places in terms of long waiting lists for capital funding.” And they highlighted, “The federal government has never provided enough funding to First Nations to ensure that the quantity and quality of their water systems was comparable to that of off-reserve communities.”

Yesterday, Trudeau stated, “[The] budget will featured historic investments in First Nations and Indigenous Canadians right across the country to being to make it right, which we have not done for so many decades in this place, in this building.”

The budget will be delivered at 4 pm EDT today.

Further reading
Council of Canadians calls on Trudeau to fulfill the right to sanitation for First Nations in Canada (Nov. 20, 2015)