AANDC Must Act On Urgent Concerns Raised By National Assessment of First Nations Water Systems

Open Letter. August 10, 2011

Honourable John Duncan, Minister
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada
10 Wellington Street
Gatineau, Quebec, K1A 0H4

Dear Minister Duncan,

We are writing to voice our grave concerns with the results of the belated National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems (“the Assessment”), released on July 14, 2011, and to demand that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) immediately take meaningful and effective action to remedy the extreme health and infrastructure concerns identified.

We also echo National Chief Atleo’s call for the federal government to work urgently with First Nations on a concrete action plan to deliver safe drinking water and wastewater systems to First Nation citizens, and we emphasize that this action plan must absolutely be fully funded.

The Assessment found that a shocking 73% of First Nations citizens on reserve currently experience drinking water systems that are a risk to their health (39% “high risk” and 34%” moderate risk”). We note that the incidence of “high risk” water systems is the greatest in British Columbia- a whopping 53%, or 154 out of 290 water systems. We are absolutely outraged and gravely concerned that Federal government quality of life standards are so low for Reserve communities that these alarming statistics were released without any accompanying emergency response plan to address these appalling conditions. If 73% of all Canadian citizens experienced drinking water systems that proved to be a risk to their health, there is absolutely no way that the government would stand idly by. This is a worsening crisis situation that features extremely detrimental health and safety risks and consequences for our community residents.

In order to ensure that First Nations, like all Canadians, have access to non-risk water and drinking water systems, the federal government must commit to providing funding for appropriate upgrades. The total cost identified in the Assessment to comply with currently applicable guidelines, protocols and legislation for water systems is $846 million, and for wastewater systems the total cost is an estimated $316 million. The Assessment notes that current Operations and Management budgets are often too low to retain operators, to provide ongoing component replacement, and to perform all of the monitoring and recording requirements. We firmly believe that AANDC has an undeniable fiduciary and moral obligation to carry out and fund the recommendations that its own department put forward in this Assessment.

We are aware that the federal government plans to re-introduce legislation on safe drinking water for First Nations (Bill S-11), and we wish to reiterate the enormous holes in the legislation. Even with amendments proposed in February 2011, Bill S-11 remained fundamentally flawed and will not improve the safety of drinking water in First Nation communities, as we explained in a letter to you on March 7th, 2011. The lack of safe drinking water to First Nation communities is not caused by a lack of regulations, but is caused by a lack of infrastructure, financial resources, and technical expertise, and by resource and land development authorized without regard to the impact on the drinking water supply to First Nations.

We remind you that the approach of Bill S-11 is not at all consistent with the recommendations made by the 2006 Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities (“Expert Panel”), which clearly call for necessary resources to be made available in order to achieve safe drinking water. In fact, the Expert Panel concluded that setting standards and requirements is in some ways the least important aspect of water system safety, and that the really critical element is the capacity of facilities and operations to meet the standards, which depends on human and economic resources. In contrast to this conclusion, the federal government drafted Bill S-11 based on standards and requirements, as opposed to any allocation of appropriate resources. The findings of the recently released Assessment confirm the findings of the Expert Panel, and reveal the urgent need for adequate resources in order to ensure safe drinking water for First Nations communities. We draw your attention to Article 39 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which provides that “Indigenous peoples have the right to have access to financial and technical assistance from States and through international cooperation, for the enjoyment of the rights contained in this Declaration.”

Rather than re-introducing Bill S-11, the federal government must abandon Bill S-11 in its current form, and engage in a meaningful, joint process with all First Nations to seek a properly resourced solution that will ensure safe drinking water for all First Nations communities. Consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this process must be done with the free, prior and informed consent of all First Nations. As part of this solution, AANDC must work with First Nations and implement the recommendations identified in the Assessment. First Nations deserve the same quality drinking water and wastewater systems that other Canadians enjoy, without being considered to be at any level of risk. Given the urgency of this issue, we expect a timely response.

On behalf of the UNION OF BC INDIAN CHIEFS

[original signed]

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip
President

Chief Robert Chamberlin
Vice-President

Chief Marilyn Baptiste
Secretary-Treasurer


CC:
Premier Christy Clark
Minister Mary Polak, Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation
National Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Assembly of First Nations
Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould, BCAFN
First Nations Summit Task Group

UBCIC is a NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.