Evaluating the First Nations water management strategy

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First Nations drinking water

By A. Morrison, L. Bradford and  L. Bharadwaj

First Nation communities in Canada live with high-risk drinking water systems and advisories, and they experience a health status significantly below that of the general population. The provision of safe drinking water is an important objective for all public health programs; however, it remains a persistent issue for many reserves in Canada.

The Auditor General of Canada’s review of drinking water in First Nation communities identified an imbalance in the provision of safe drinking water in Canada. In the public report into the contamination of Walkerton Ontario’s municipal drinking water supply, Justice Dennis O’Connor identified reserve communities as having “some of the poorest quality water in the province.”

Currently, some 30% of reserve water systems are classified as posing a high risk to water quality. As of June 30, 2015, there were 132 drinking water advisories in effect in 91 First Nation communities across Canada, excluding British Columbia (Health Canada, 2015). An average drinking water advisory duration of 343 days has been reported (Health Canada, 2009).

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Although Canadian provinces have incorporated a number of regulatory changes to ensure that residents on public drinking water supplies are provided with safe drinking water from source to tap, provincial water regulations do not apply to reserve communities. A complex tri-departmental federal structure of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) and Health Canada, with Environment Canada serving in an advisory role, has shared responsibility for safe delivery of drinking water for First Nations.

Additionally, Chief and Council are responsible for the design and construction of water systems and must assume 20% of the cost. They are also tasked with operation and maintenance, including monitoring water safety and ensuring the presence of trained operators. As a result of this managerial complexity, uncertainties, inconsistencies and failed systems have been the norm in many First Nation communities.

Over the last decade, $2 billion has been invested to improve drinking water quality for First Nations by way of several key policies and action plans put in place by the federal government and its agencies. The federal government’s response to water access and management issues on First Nation reserves has primarily been in the form of directing investment for improvements in their drinking water through the seven step First Nations Water Management Strategy (FNWMS).

The FNWMS was a five-year strategy implemented in May 2003. It stemmed from an initial baseline assessment of the state of water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nation communities, conducted in 2001 and 2002 by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC 2003). The FNWMS strategy involved a federal investment of $1.6 billion between 2003 and 2008. Projected outcomes included increasing community capacities for water monitoring, sampling, analysis and reporting, decreasing the number of high-risk systems, and developing and implementing a comprehensive set of clearly defined standards, protocols and policies, utilizing a multi-barrier approach (INAC 2007).

Several additional initiatives have been implemented since the inception of the FNWMS. These plans were applied between 2003 and 2013 and included the Plan of Action for First Nations Drinking Water (PoAFNDW), the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan (FNWWAP) and Bill S-8.

Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, was the second legislative initiative introduced by the federal government to address safe drinking water on reserves. This bill was introduced in the Senate on February 29, 2012, and contained 15 clauses, the majority of which speak to the Governor in Council’s power to make regulations governing the provision of drinking water and the disposal of wastewater on First Nation lands (AANDC 2012).

It establishes that federal regulations may incorporate, by reference, provincial regulations governing drinking water and wastewater in First Nation communities (AANDC 2012) and addresses the application of regulations to source water, the liability of on-reserve First Nations for non–band-owned water systems, the liability of self-governing First Nations, and agreements with, and powers of, third parties used for enforcement of the legislation (AANDC 2012).

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