In the House of Commons yesterday, there was a four-hour debate on the issue of First Nations access to clean drinking water. The Liberal motion being debated said simply, “That the House call on the Government of Canada to address on an urgent basis the needs of those First Nations communities whose members have no access to clean, running water in their homes; that action to address this disparity begin no later than spring 2012; and that the House further recognize that the absence of this basic requirement represents a continuing affront to our sense of justice and fairness as Canadians.”
The Globe and Mail reports, “The Conservative government has thrown its support behind a Liberal bid to improve access to drinking water in first nations communities.” APTN adds, “The NDP also supported the motion, said Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus. Angus recently visited the Ontario community of Attawapiskat to highlight the dire situation facing the community where feces is dumped from buckets into ditches and where families are being forced to live in tents, shacks and a trailer crammed with 90 people.”
The human right to water
During the debate, Hansard notes that NDP MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach stated, “In 2010, the Prime Minister abstained from the vote that would recognize the right to water and sanitation of the Assembly of First Nations.” Another NDP MP Jinny Jogindera-Sims said, “Is the government ready to commit all the necessary resources to ensure every Canadian child has access to clean drinking water, which is an internationally recognized human right?” And NDP MP Jonathan Genest-Jourdain said, “Needless to say, it is the federal government’s duty to preserve human dignity in this country. In that regard and under international law, drinking water is recognized as essential and a prerequisite to exercising human rights.”
The day prior to this debate, the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition contacted the Council of Canadians for information on First Nations access to water and we highlighted in our response to the Leader’s Office the United Nations recognition of the right to water and sanitation.
First Nations reaction
In a media release, “Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo today welcomed all party support for addressing the needs of First Nation communities requiring access to clean, running water in their homes, and urged the Government of Canada to work with First Nations on implementation. ‘Access to safe, potable water and sanitation is a basic human right, and I commend all parties for their acknowledgement that urgent attention is required to ensure First Nation citizens have access to clean, running water in their homes,’ said AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo.”
The Globe and Mail article also notes, “David Harper, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which encompasses the four first nations where the water problem is most acute, praised the Liberal motion. ‘I am calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government to immediately enter into negotiations with the chiefs of the Island Lake First Nations and the province of Manitoba to deliver clean running water within two years to each of the more than 800 homes in the Island Lake First Nations without water service’, he said in a release issued Monday. …More than 40 per cent of the 1,880 first-nations homes in Canada that still do not have water service are located in four communities in Island Lake region, about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg on the Ontario border.”
The Council of Canadians has been working with both the Assembly of First Nations and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak on the implementation of the UN-recongized right to water and sanitation for First Nations peoples. Water campaigner Meera Karunananthan met with an MKO representative just last week in Ottawa.
Funding needed/ timeline
CBC notes, “Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan announced $5.5 million Thursday to help improve infrastructure in Manitoba’s Island Lake First Nations communities, which have faced severe water-quality issues. Duncan said his officials would be meeting with the leaders of those communities Friday.”
According to a two-year study commissioned by the Aboriginal Affairs department, the federal government needs to invest $1.2 billion immediately to raise reserve-based water and sewage systems to acceptable levels. The study found that the government needs to invest a total of $5 billion in First Nations water systems over the next 10 years.
In February 2011, the Council of Canadians and Assembly of First Nations supported the Alternative Federal Budget’s call for $1 billion to be spent this fiscal year to build, upgrade and maintain water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nation communities (as well as $1 billion in both 2012-13 and 2013-14). In the March 22 and June 6 federal budgets, the Harper government failed to provide the funding necessary to begin to meet the drinking water and sanitation needs of First Nations peoples.
Canada’s compliance to human rights obligations will next be reviewed – through the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process – in 2013, likely in February of that year. The Council of Canadians intends to intervene on this occasion given the Harper government’s refusal to recognize or take action to implement the human right to water and sanitation.
To read the debate – which starts at about 10:00 am under ‘Business of Supply’ and ‘Opposition Motion Aboroginal Affairs’ and ends at 1400 at ‘Statements by Members’ – go to http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Pub=hansard&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=41&Ses=1.