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The Honourable Jim Prentice, PC, MP
Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and
Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-status Indians
March 21, 2006
Check against delivery
Today, I’m pleased to announce a plan of action to address the longstanding issue of unsafe drinking water in many First Nation communities.
When Prime Minister Harper appointed me Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, I recognized that one of my first priorities would be to resolve the problems associated with drinking water. Today we take the first steps in a new direction that will achieve improvements in drinking-water systems on reserves and standards that will promote accountability and responsibility.
Today, a collaborative effort begins to achieve these goals: - to address the most serious water-quality problems, to establish national standards for the operation of treatment facilities, and to institute clear rules for the people responsible for water quality.
It is unacceptable that many First Nation communities across Canada continue
to face ongoing risk to the safety of their drinking water.
Like most other Canadians, I was appalled by last year’s crisis on Kashechewan First Nation.
As long as I am Minister, I will take the preventative measures needed to head off similar crises, and will not hesitate to intervene when the health and safety of a community is at risk.
This government will ensure that First Nation community leaders have access to the tools and resources they need to deliver clean water to their residents.
Numerous studies and reviews—including last year’s critical report by the Auditor General—have helped describe the nature of the problem and identify specific regulatory and administrative flaws. These independent analyses are extremely helpful and inform the actions announced today.
To appreciate the impact of these actions, though, one must first understand the roles and responsibilities assigned to various parties.
Under the current system, the leaders of a First Nation community—typically a band’s chief and council—are responsible for the operation and maintenance of water-treatment facilities and for the delivery of safe drinking water to residents. My department—Indian and Northern Affairs Canada—provides funding to each band to support these services, and also funds training for treatment-facility operators. Health Canada ensures that adequate water-quality monitoring programs are in place.
To kick-start reform, officials in my department today take the following five steps:
One, work with 21 First Nation communities, the most at risk, that is
ones with high risk water systems and drinking water advisories in place,
and develop detailed remedial plans to fix the specific problems of each
of these communities.
Two, ensure that certified operators oversee all treatment-plant facilities by the end of this year, and require that treatment-plant operators complete necessary training programs.
Three, implement the Protocol for Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Communities. The protocol establishes clear standards for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and monitoring of treatment facilities, and sets out clear roles and responsibilities for all those accountable.
Four, assemble a panel of experts to provide options for a regulatory framework, including new legislation. This panel’s recommendations for a new framework are expected by September of this year.
And five, deliver regular reports on progress. I will provide an update on these actions and give a comprehensive account during the Fall Parliamentary session.
Together, these five actions will inject much-needed improvements into the current system. But the actions are only the centrepiece of a much larger effort. The 21 First Nation communities identified today are not the only ones that face serious challenges associated with their water systems. Approximately 170 communities have drinking water systems assessed as high risk as of today. Over the next months, we will work with those communities to develop remedial plans to reduce their risk level and assess what resources are required for long term solutions.
We recognize there is no easy fix. No single solution for the unique problems that exist in each community. Improving water quality in some locations requires simple adjustments to treatment processes - such as proper chlorination – while in other communities, though, major overhauls of water plants may be required.
Furthermore, to alleviate the chronic shortage of certified treatment-plant operators—a major risk factor to water quality—a concerted training effort must be undertaken. Obviously, it will take some time for First Nation communities to develop the expertise needed to meet expectations. In the short term, we will pursue options such as contracts with independent firms to operate, maintain and monitor treatment facilities.
The ultimate goal is to ensure that residents of First Nation communities enjoy the same protection afforded other Canadians when it comes to drinking water.
No one partner can achieve this alone. That’s why I’m thankful that Chief Fontaine is with me today and shares my commitment to work together for the benefit of all First Nations and all Canadians.