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NEWS: Right to water court challenge considered by Manitoba First Nations

The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “Do First Nations have a clear right to clean water under treaties or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or international declarations? And if so, how can bands enforce those rights, short of suing?”

“Using the courts to force Ottawa to properly fund services on reserves is an idea that’s been talked about before, but now a team of lawyers at the University of Manitoba and beyond are pulling together all the nuanced legal research. Going to court is daunting for most bands. It would likely take years and significant funds. Even the U of M’s research initiative is a three-year process that involves case law reviews and reform proposals, but that research could help bands make the case in the court of public opinion that providing clean drinking water is an obligation of government.”

“Several chiefs frustrated with the slow pace of change, including St. Theresa Point’s David McDougall, say they might like to have a legal opinion in their back pocket. ‘It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility,’ said McDougall of a potential lawsuit.”
Why is this being pursued?

“It’s been a year since the Winnipeg Free Press first highlighted the damage to health and human dignity caused by the lack of running water in 1,400 First Nations homes (in Manitoba). …But since then, a small handful of advocacy campaigns have largely failed to galvanize public opinion, few charitable organizations have stepped up to tackle the problem and the federal government is under no sustained pressure to provide essential services to First Nations mired in Third World conditions.”

“With the (Manitoba government’s) help, Frontiers (a non-profit aboriginal voluntary service organization) is experimenting with a new bio-filter tank that can be installed near each home to treat sewage on-site… But Frontiers is a relatively small charity. It’s got expertise working with remote First Nations, but it can’t possibly bring running water to the 1,400 homes in Manitoba that need it. And, as staff at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs point out, it’s the government’s job to provide essential services, a responsibility crystallized in treaties and in the Canadian Constitution. Allowing charities to step in and bear some of the load, while helpful in the short-term, undermines those rights, essentially letting Ottawa off the hook.”

The Toronto Star has reported, “Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians national chair who fought for the United Nations resolution (on the right to water), urged all First Nations to start using the resolution in their struggles to get the federal government to honour its commitment to provide clean water to aboriginal peoples.” Barlow has said that UN recognition of the right to water and sanitation obligates Canada under international law to come up with a plan to fulfill that right in First Nations communities that continue to go without clean water and sanitation. Barlow said, “The federal government is in violation of this international recognition.” Given UN recognition of the right to water and sanitation, Canada is required to submit a National Action Plan for the Realization of the Right to Water and Sanitation by February 2013. That same month, the UN Human Rights Council will review Canada’s record of meeting its human rights obligations, through what is called a periodic review.

The Assembly of First Nations and the Council of Canadians have both 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 2012-13 and 2013-14). In both the March 22 and June 6, the Harper government failed to provide the funding necessary to begin to meet the drinking water and sanitation needs of First Nations peoples. The Council of Canadians will repeat this demand in the 2012-13 Alternative Federal Budget to be released this coming February.

This past March, the Council of Canadians expressed solidarity with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs campaign for the right to water, http://canadians.org/blog/?p=6100. To sign their Water Is A Human Right campaign online petition, please go to http://www.manitobachiefs.com.