Duncan Announces New First Nations Water Bill

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Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, seen here in the House of Commons Feb. 7, is set to introduce the Harper government’s second attempt at clean water legislation for First Nations reserves. He’s expected to announce the bill Wednesday in Calgary. (Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Canadian Press | February 29, 2012 | Shared as an education material

A major fund for clean water on reserves is set to expire even as the Conservatives tabled a new bill that aimed at improving water quality for First Nations.

Government estimates released this week show that the First Nations water and wastewater action plan is scheduled to wind up next month. That means reserves will see $159.2 million less in funding in the new fiscal year, unless the government renews the fund.

At the same time, the government has just introduced a bill that would prescribe clean water on reserves — but the bill has no funding attached.

An assessment commissioned by the federal government estimated last year that bringing First Nations’ water systems up to par and maintaining them would cost about $5 billion over 10 years.

Critics concerned about cost

Without firm funding, critics were left wondering how First Nations can meet the new requirements even as existing funding is set to melt away.

“I don’t see a plan,” said Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett. “This is unacceptable to be doing this piecemeal.”

Setting up a legal framework is only part of the answer for First Nations drinking water, added NDP critic Linda Duncan.

“You get there by having legally binding standards, there’s no doubt about it. But to get there, you need to have resources.”

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan was in Calgary to announce the new bill — his second attempt to legislate clean water on reserves.

A background document on his website confirmed the bill would have no funding attached. And the minister’s spokesman did not answer directly when asked whether the sunsetting money would be renewed.

“We will continue to make important and strategic investments in infrastructure, monitoring and capacity,” Jan O’Driscoll wrote in an email.

He noted that the Conservatives have budgeted about $2.5 billion over seven years for clean water on reserves. The new legislation will build on that investment, he said.

Disagreement on first billelated Stories

A previous clean-water bill died last year when Parliament was dissolved for the May election. But First Nations didn’t support that legislation, saying it was riddled with flaws.

While everyone involved wants clean water on reserves, the government has had a hard time getting agreement on how to achieve that goal.

Past attempts prescribed clean water, but did not give First Nations much control over implementation or provide the money to build infrastructure and train people to keep the water drinkable.

More consultations on second bill

This time, the government says it consulted more widely and has made substantial changes to the bill.

The legislation will include new protections for treaty and aboriginal rights and call for co-operation with First Nations to develop the regulations that will flesh out the bill.

It will also remove the federal government’s ability to set water rates or impose a third party to manage a band’s water system.

The federal government indicated it will likely take years to write the regulations that will make the bill work.

Sources say the government has given its word that extra funding would be negotiated during the years that the regulations are being drafted. This commitment was enough to bring some, but not all, regional chiefs on side, insiders say.

Unsafe drinking water has been the subject of numerous reports and recommendations over the last decade.

Most recently, a government-commissioned assessment of First Nations water and waste-water systems published last year showed that 39 per cent of reserves had water at “high risk” of being unsafe, and 34 per cent at “medium risk”.

The report estimated that bringing reserve water systems up to federal standards and keeping them there would cost $4.7 billion over 10 years.

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