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First Nations Drinking Water and the Federal Election

As suggested by a new poll, health care remains a key issue for Canadians. Although health care is under the provinces jurisdictions, the Globe and Mail noted that: “The federal government runs the country’s fifth-largest health system. It is responsible for the direct delivery of health care to more than one million people, including status Indians living on reserves, Inuit, members of the Canadian Forces, the RCMP, eligible veterans, federal prison inmates and refugee claimants.”

“It is shameful that our wannabe leaders do not have to explain why, in 2011, we tolerate entire communities living without safe drinking water and reliant on “honey pots” (human sewage collected in buckets or plastic bags). Currently, there are more than 100 drinking-water advisories on reserves. This is a disgrace of global proportions in a wealthy country like Canada.”

“Surely it has to be one of our most pressing health and social issues and a recurrent topic on the campaign trail. So where is the debate about cleaning up drinking water on reserves? There was a bill, S-11, that died on the order paper. But the proposed law came with no funds for building the infrastructure to provide clean water; all it gave us so far was some unseemly lobbying.”

In the recent budget, the Harper government failed to allocate any new funding for drinking water on First nation reserves. In the 2010 Budget, $330 million was allocated over two years for the First Nation Water and Wastewater Action plan (FNWWAP). The five key areas under the FNWWAP are: Infrastructure investments; Operations and maintenance; Training; Monitoring and awareness; and Standards, which means First Nations have to fund all of these five areas with a meagre $165 million this year.

How much does $165 million towards water and wastewater help First Nation communities living on reserves?  Costs for water and wastewater infrastructure depend on a number of variables including the size of community and type of facility. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is set to release a comprehensive assessment on water and wastewater infrastructure in April. Hopefully, the assessment will include estimates of costs to build, upgrade and maintain. However, in the meantime, it may be useful to examine what $165 million has purchased in past years. Under Canada’s Economic Action Plan, $165 million was allocated to build or upgrade 18 water and wastewater plants, which averages to about $ 9.17 million per plant.

It is important to note that the 65 F-35 fighter jets that Harper plans to purchase have been estimated to cost over $100 million each. So to be clear, the purchase of two of these fighter jets would exceed what is being allocated to First Nation communities for drinking water.

In 2010, 49 communities were identified as ‘high-risk,’ which means the systems have “major deficiencies in several aspects, such as water source, design, operation, reporting and operator training or certification.”  In relation to wastewater systems, 61 communities were identified as high-risk, which means the systems have “major deficiencies in several aspects such as effluent receiver, design, operation, reporting and operator training or certification.” However, the categorization of ‘high-risk’ is based on the quality of the water and wastewater systems. So this assessment does not include communities that are in need of water and wastewater treatment plants. As mentioned there are 116 communities under water advisories. Some of the water advisories have been in place for many years. While the water quality in some of these communities would improve with water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades or maintenance, some of the water advisories are in place because of pollution and toxic chemicals. The federal budget also fails to address a comprehensive strategy to address water degradation on First Nation reserves.

In the Public Health Agency of Canada’s report Towards a Healthy Future: Second Report on the Health of Canadians, it is noted that “The incidence of waterborne diseases is several times higher in First Nations communities than in the general population, in part because of inadequate or non-existent
water treatment systems.”

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly (GA) unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the right to water and sanitation. 122 countries voted in favour of the resolution, no country opposed the resolution and 41 countries, including Canada, abstained. At the end September, the HRC passed a resolution recognizing the right to water and sanitation. This second resolution recognized the right to water as already entrenched in international law. The UN Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, 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.”

A poll released the day before World Water Day noted that 73% of Canadians want the Harper government to recognize the human right to clean and safe water and sanitation.

With election campaigning well under way, we need to highlight the importance of Canada’s recognition on the right to water and to press party leaders to make effective commitments to improve drinking water in First Nation communities.