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Canadian courts approve class-action settlement over First Nations drinking water

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A federal court and the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba have approved a historic $8 billion class-action settlement to address decades of clean water access issues on First Nations reserves across Canada.

The settlement approved in December, includes $1.5 billion in compensation for about 142,000 individuals from 258 communities, along with 120 First Nations deprived of clean drinking water. Additionally, the settlement brings a commitment of at least $6 billion to continue the process of building sufficient drinking water infrastructure.

Currently, there are still 38 long-term drinking water advisories in 29 First Nations communities across Canada. The federal government has been promising clean drinking water and adequate wastewater systems for all reserves since at least 1977. In March 2021 the government missed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own deadline to end all existing boil water advisories on reserves.

The class action launched in Manitoba in 2019 from Tataskweyak Cree Nation and was court certified a year later. It was merged with another class action that originated from Ontario’s Curve Lake First Nation. All members of Canadian First Nations that had a drinking water advisory for at least one year since 1995 were able to join the lawsuit.

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The proposed settlement agreement occurred over summer 2021. At that time, lead class-action lawyer Michael Rosenberg, a partner at the law firm McCarthy Tétrault, called the agreement a “remarkable shift.”

“We were able to reach what I think is a historic agreement that will provide compensation for the wrongs of the past, and address the future to ensure that it does not resemble the past,” Rosenberg announced in a statement.

Chief Emily Whetung, of Curve Lake First Nation, also released a statement on the settlement, noting that, “we have come one step closer to reconciling this long history.”

Additional components of the settlement include the creation of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund; the creation of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water; planned modernization of Canada’s First Nations drinking water legislation; and support for First Nations to develop their own safe drinking water bylaws and initiatives.

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