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The Canadian Government Introduces New Legislation to Address First Nations’ Water Issues

Patrick D Costa

The bill, presented by Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu

The Liberal government has introduced long-awaited legislation that aims to improve water quality in First Nations communities, enhance collaboration on water protection, and establish a First Nations-led commission.

The bill, presented by Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, is described as the result of extensive collaboration and knowledge-sharing between the government and First Nations. It proposes a new framework for managing water resources on First Nations land, encompassing source water, drinking water, wastewater, and related infrastructure.

During a news conference, Ms. Hajdu highlighted the importance of empowering First Nations communities to safeguard their inherent right to clean water. She emphasized that the bill marks a significant step towards a new era of collaborative law-making.

Assembly of First Nations Ontario regional chief Glen Hare emphasized the vital role of clean water in protecting families. He pointed out that children in First Nations communities without access to clean water are often subjected to unwarranted accusations of neglect.

Ms. Hajdu noted that while the legislation represents the closest collaboration between the government and First Nations on law-making, some Alberta chiefs have expressed reservations.

In response to a query about consultations, Ms. Hajdu stated that all First Nations were provided with the draft legislation and a subsequent revised version. She emphasized that consultations will continue throughout the legislative process and welcomes feedback from all stakeholders.

The bill comes after the Liberals’ missed 2021 deadline for eliminating all boil-water advisories in First Nations communities. The proposed legislation proposes a collaborative approach for determining drinking water quality and standards, with minimum standards aligned with federal, provincial, or territorial guidelines.

Funding for water infrastructure and services will be provided at a level comparable to that offered to off-reserve communities. The bill also includes provisions for First Nations to seek legal recourse in cases where funding falls short.

A key aspect of the legislation is the creation of a First Nations-led water commission. This body will monitor water quality in communities, offer legal assistance, and provide recommendations to federal, provincial, and territorial governments.

The bill also opens the door for First Nations to negotiate shared jurisdiction with other jurisdictions for managing and protecting water sources within designated water protection zones.

While acknowledging the potential for conflicting priorities, Ms. Hajdu expressed optimism about collaborative solutions. She emphasized the government’s commitment to supporting consultations and collaboration between First Nations, provinces, and territories.

Indigenous water researcher Dawn Martin-Hill believes increased Indigenous involvement in water management is crucial. She highlighted the lack of Indigenous representation and consultation in current water management practices.

Dr. Martin-Hill sees the new legislation as a step towards empowering First Nations to manage their own water resources and restore degraded ecosystems.

The bill’s introduction follows the 2021 repeal of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act. While the act aimed to improve access to clean drinking water and wastewater treatment, many First Nations criticized it for inadequate funding and infringement of their rights.

In 2021, a class-action lawsuit against the government resulted in an $8-billion settlement. The settlement provided compensation to First Nations affected by boil-water advisories, established a fund for economic and cultural restoration, allocated funds for water infrastructure, and paved the way for the new legislation.

Dr. Martin-Hill views the entire process as an example of how colonialism operates, highlighting the struggle for Indigenous communities to regain control over their land and resources.

NDP MP Lori Idlout, the Crown-Indigenous Relations critic, expressed cautious optimism about the new legislation but emphasized the need for thorough review.

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