The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was introduced in Parliament on May 26. While undoubtedly good news for many, we must always remember the Feds giveth and the Feds taketh away. Along with the Act is a two-year extension of the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan.
“First Nations should expect, as do all Canadians, to have access to safe, clean drinking water,” said Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. “The introduction of legislation and the extension of the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan will enable the Government of Canada to continue making tangible progress on its commitment to improving water conditions on-reserve.”
I love to hear Strahl talk. He isn’t a bad guy but he’s given one of the worst jobs ever. Simultaneously telling people help is on the way but give us a couple of more years before we get to you.
Strahl threw in some cash to make the extension a little easier to swallow saying, “The extension of the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan provides an additional $330 million over the next two years to continue to support First Nations in the provision of safe drinking water.”
The legislation comes on the heels of testimony before and by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, the Auditor General’s office and the AFN’s expert panel.
One such panel member was Harry Swain, who chaired the research advisory panel of the Walkerton Inquiry and an expert panel on a water and wastewater strategy for Ontario. Swain, himself, was once a Deputy Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. He must be getting a different look at the old department he worked for. Still, he and others have influenced the government in the right direction.
The Auditor General’s office said, “When it comes to the safety of drinking water, residents of First Nations communities do not benefit from a level of protection comparable to that of people who live off reserves. This is partly because there are no laws and regulations governing the provision of drinking water in First Nations communities, unlike other communities.”
With such heavy hitters, there has been progress in ensuring First Nations have clean drinking water. All First Nations community sites now have access to a trained Community-Based Water Monitor or an Environmental Health Officer to sample and test drinking water quality at tap. In 2009, 92% of communities had access to portable test kits for on-site bacteriological analysis of drinking water, up from 56% in 2002.
It has cost the government though as they say between 2006 -2012 they will have invested over $2.3 billion in First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure. This funding includes: annual departmental investments of approximately $200 million, $270 million through the First Nations Water Management Strategy, $60 million through the Plan of Action for Drinking Water, approximately $660 million through the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan and $183 million through Canada’s Economic Action Plan.
More reassuring than that is that in 2006, there were 193 high-risk drinking water systems. Today, that number has been reduced by about three-quarters to 49 systems. Indian Affairs identified 21 communities as priorities, which meant that the community had both a high-risk drinking water system and a drinking water advisory; only 3 of those are still on the list.
Where the government is lacking is in the area of high-risk wastewater systems have been reduced from 67 to 60.
Hopefully the two-year extension will bring these numbers down and First Nations communities will finally be a safer place to drink…water.