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Prairie First Nations call on Ottawa to rewrite clean water bill

First Nations leaders in Manitoba and Alberta are calling on Ottawa to redraft proposed new clean water legislation — and warn that the bill would fail to ensure safe drinking water and wastewater services in their communities.

Two groups representing more than 100 First Nations in the two provinces told CBC News they can’t support the bill because it’s too lax and could leave their people on the hook for problems with water treatment.

“Basically, Canada has given me a broken-down old vehicle,” said Chief Rupert Meneen of the Tallcree Tribal Government, based about 590 kilometres north of Edmonton.

“I’m not in any way going to take on something that is all broken down and take the liabilities on that come with it.”

Bill C-61 — an Act respecting water, source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure on First Nation lands — generated a mix of reactions when it was introduced on December 11 in the House of Commons.

WATCH: Indigenous Services Minister announces new water bill for First Nations

prairie first nations call on ottawa to rewrite clean water bill

New bill has ‘essential’ tools to protect First Nations drinking water, minister says

10 days ago

Duration 0:58

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu presented the key aspects of a new bill that aims to address the safety of drinking water on First Nations.

The proposed law is meant to protect fresh water sources and establish minimum national drinking water and wastewater standards in First Nations, create a new First Nations-led water institution to support communities and provide sustainable funding for maintaining water quality.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and an Alberta chiefs committee are demanding significant amendments and further consultations on how to protect clean water sources.

“The bottom line is that this bill is not meeting the mark,” said Norma Large, a policy adviser to the Chiefs Steering Committee on Technical Services, which represents 47 First Nations in Alberta under treaties 6, 7 and 8.

Large said the committee fears the federal government is dumping clean water responsibilities onto First Nations without first dealing with the water crisis it created through the underfunded reserve system and restrictions imposed under the Indian Act.

Chiefs say treaty right to water missing from bill

One of the goals of the bill is to draft agreements between First Nations, federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments about water source protection.

While Large said she can appreciate the intention, she said there needs to be explicit language in the bill recognizing the treaty right to clean water and confirming that right transcends reserve boundaries.

“Often, the reserve line is where the discussion ends,” she said.

Large said the issue of jurisdiction is particularly important for First Nations in Alberta because they’re not convinced the provincial government will recognize their jurisdiction over water source protection.

The Alberta government of Premier Danielle Smith introduced its Sovereignty Act in 2022 as a tool to push back against federal laws and policies.

The committee is urging Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu to sit down with Alberta treaty chiefs to address their concerns about jurisdiction and a lack of support.

Large and Meneen (who also sits on the Chiefs Steering Committee) said they tried to address the issue with the government before the bill was tabled.

“We were ignored,” Meneen said.

The government is defending its bill, which it describes as the result of historic consultations with First Nations partners.

Simon Ross, Hajdu’s press secretary, said the draft version of the bill was posted online and sent individually to all First Nations chiefs, and an updated version was shared with them last summer.

Ross said Hajdu met twice with Treaty 8 First Nations in 2023 and once with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in April 2023.

But Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said First Nations leaders still weren’t adequately informed.

“I’m disheartened,” she said.

A close up shot of an Indigenous woman with medium length black hair.
Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says she wants Ottawa to make significant amendments to Bill C-61. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Ottawa said it co-drafted the bill with the Assembly of First Nations, which took lead on the file in 2018. 

“While the AFN has called upon all parties to support the bill, we understand that some First Nations partners still feel like their concerns did not make it to the final version,” said Ross, who added those concerns can be addressed as the bill makes its way through Parliament.

Merrick said the AFN, which represents more than 600 First Nations across the country, should have done more to seek community approval.

“They have that responsibility,” Merrick said.

CBC News reached out to the AFN for comment but did not hear back.

‘Best efforts’ not good enough

The bill states First Nations can choose to follow either provincial or federal drinking water and wastewater regulatory codes — whichever is stronger.

Before that can happen, said Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias, First Nations need proper infrastructure and resources to ensure they can produce safe drinking water.

“Right now, we don’t have that in place,” said Monias, whose community is located more than 770 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The bill uses the term “best efforts” to describe the government’s obligation to ensure access to safe drinking water and funding.

Many First Nations leaders say that language is inadequate.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is urging other communities to develop their own water laws.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says Ottawa’s proposed water law contains weak language that doesn’t guarantee safe drinking water and wastewater. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

“‘Best efforts’ is not strong enough,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta, approximately 700 kilometres north of Edmonton.

“It has to be concrete.”

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is located downstream from major oilsands projects and tailings ponds. 

The community recently developed its own drinking water law to protect itself from contamination. Allan said other First Nations should consider doing the same to increase the pressure on Ottawa to protect clean water sources.

“No shortcut should be taken when it comes to safe drinking water,” Allan said.

“When you turn your tap on in the city, we should have the same assurance that the tap water is good for us on the reserve.”

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