Thursday, November 17, 2011
Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.) :
|That the House call on the Government of Canada to address on an urgent basis the needs of those First Nations communities whose members have no access to clean, running water in their homes; that action to address this disparity begin no later than spring 2012; and that the House further recognize that the absence of this basic requirement represents a continuing affront to our sense of justice and fairness as Canadians.|
He said: Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for St. Paul’s.
It would be nice if we did not have to debate this issue, but we have to recognize that Canadians live, unfortunately, in very different conditions, depending on where they live. A continuing affront to our sense of wholeness, justice and fairness as Canadians is the fact that members of first nations communities and other aboriginal communities across the country are living in conditions of deep poverty and great hardship. The most telling reflection of this hardship is the fact that there are hundreds of communities which do not have access to clean running water at the present time.
I have a personal reflection on this because at the time that I led a government in Ontario, the provincial government made a decision that it was not going to tolerate this situation in our own province. Although it was, strictly speaking, outside our jurisdiction, we negotiated with the federal government a cost-sharing agreement in which Ontario, even though it did not have to, would contribute to infrastructure to ensure that people living in first nations communities would have access to clean running water, flush toilets, sewage treatment, and housing and the basic conditions of life which make a difference.
I spoke with Premier Selinger in Manitoba. He told me that he would be interested in negotiating a similar agreement with the federal government, but that the federal government was not expressing an interest in dealing with this question on an urgent basis. He signalled to me that his government was not going to do it without the support of the federal government, which is not an unreasonable position for him to take. However, if the federal government were willing, the Province of Manitoba would be willing to step up to the plate and contribute to making a difference to the first nations people who are living in northern Manitoba.
It really is quite extraordinary that the federal government has not taken up such an offer. It is not every day that a provincial government says it is prepared to spend money outside its jurisdiction in order to deal with a deep humanitarian problem. The federal government has said that it is prepared to change the regulations that would increase the requirements for first nations governments on the question of clean drinking water. However, that approach flies in the face of the recommendations the government has received from an expert panel that it appointed. That expert panel said to deal with the resources first and then the regulations.
The principle is very simple. We believe that all Canadians, regardless of where in Canada they live—whether it is in the north, the south or elsewhere in the country—have a fundamental right to have access to drinking water and that they also have the right to adequate water facilities. As Canadians, we refuse to accept that people live in such conditions of poverty, when we talk about Canada as a fair and just country. There is a contradiction there that the Liberal Party can no longer accept.
This is not a motion that is intended to engage us in partisan debate. I hope the government can find a way to support it.
The government may want to spend the day making partisan speeches saying that the Liberal government did not do this or that. We can all recognize that not everything was done that should have been done, but that is not the point.
The point is now we have clear public statements from the expert panel to which I have referred, chaired by Dr. Harry Swain who was a well-known deputy minister in the Government of Canada. We have the reports of the former auditor general, Sheila Fraser.
These reports from the Auditor General directly address the unacceptable living conditions in this country’s first nations communities.
We have reports coming out as recently as this week indicating just how unacceptable it is for our country. As of 2010, 116 first nations reserve communities across Canada are under a drinking water advisory with a mean average duration of 343 days. Lack of access to clean drinking water presents a serious health threat to first nations reserve communities, creating a higher likelihood of disease and infection transmission, and poorer overall health outcomes.
We can look back to the 19th century and ask what explains the dramatic improvement in the living conditions of working people all across Europe, what accounted for a tremendous extension of life for working people in the middle of the 19th century. It was clean drinking water and sewage treatment. Those are the two things that made a profound difference to the health of ordinary people.
I can see many colleagues in the House, and all of us can speak of our travels. I remember one trip when I was in provincial politics in the 1980s to the communities recognized by my colleague from Timmins. It had an impact on me, and when I became premier I said that if we did nothing else, we had to take steps to make sure that we improved the basic living conditions and the infrastructure for the people living in Attawapiskat and Kashechewan and the communities on the shores of James Bay in the province of Ontario.
There is not a single member in this House who would not be equally affected by visiting the northern reserves right across this country. Members would find isolated conditions, people living in poverty, housing conditions that are unacceptable by any standard. Too many people are falling sick because they do not have access to something quite basic and fundamental, safe, clean drinking water.
Let us think about Canada, the country of clean water, the country of beautiful lakes, the country of flowing rivers. Is this a country that cannot provide the basics of life to its own people? Is this a country that says it will pass regulations but it will not provide the resources?
It is something we cannot accept, and we insist that it be changed.
Hon. Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, I thank my leader for his passionate speech, for his leadership and for giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue that is very important to all Canadians.
My friend, the member for Mount Royal, used the phrase “the mobilization of shame”, and that is really what today’s debate is about. When Canadians see those posters in the washrooms about washing their hands, we hope they think about those people who do not even have running water to wash their hands. I feel embarrassed as a Canadian. What I have found throughout my riding of St. Paul’s and across this country is that all Canadians are increasingly embarrassed about the third world conditions in which so many of our first peoples live.
It is important to recall what happened two years ago during H1N1. It is no coincidence that the communities, which ended up on the list of no running water, were the very communities devastated by the impact of H1N1. People in Canada came to know the names of St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake and Wasagamack because those were the communities with air transport taking out their citizens and too many of them not returning.
In Lessons Learned, we saw that, in the first wave, significant pressure was put on air ambulances when 76 patients required air transfer from their northern communities. In 383 hospitalizations, 71 patients were admitted to intensive care and there were 11 deaths due to H1N1 flu in those northern Manitoba communities, even though, in the report on H1N1, first nations communities in Manitoba and northern Ontario being hit by a highly communicable H1N1 virus. Despite being just 10% of the population in Manitoba, natives made up one-third of the 685 swine flu cases in that province. As our leader said, about 1,000 homes in northern Manitoba still have no running water and many of these homes have no plumbing of any kind.
During that time, we went to visit some of these communities. I think all Canadians need to, in some way, be with us on that journey, to walk into a home and see, where there ought to be a kitchen sink, a turquoise bowl filled with the water from last night’s dishes because there is no place to put that grey water. People need to wait until the next water delivery comes. Or, walk into the outhouse that these people have to use all winter long. It is just inexcusable in a country as rich as Canada. I do not think there is one Canadian who thinks this should continue and that this is not an urgent problem.
When our government fell in 2005, we had just received the report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. As others have said today, I, too, was in cabinet during the embarrassment and tragedy of Kashechewan. We know we need to do more but, unfortunately, that was six years ago.
Since then, we have had the report by the expert panel on safe drinking water for first nations and the safe drinking water for first nations Senate report, chaired by the Hon. Gerry St. Germain, a Conservative senator, in which the conclusion reached states:
|Legislation to regulate water standards on reserve is required. No one, including this Committee, argues differently. Regulations are, however, only part of the answer. Sustained investment in the capacity of First Nations community water systems and of those running the systems is absolutely essential to ensure First Nations people on-reserve enjoy safe drinking water. Without this investment, we risk introducing a regulatory regime that burdens communities and does little to help them meet legislated standards.|
Unfortunately, the government has come forward with only an interest in legislation and no commitment for the resources to actually meet the standards that would be put forth in those regulations.
Then, in 2008, we had the devastating status report of the Auditor General of Canada in the House of Commons in Chapter 4—Programs for First Nations on Reserves.
We then had the national assessment on first nations’ water and waste water systems which, members will be appalled to learn, was available in April 2011 but was hidden by the government until after the election. I think the Conservatives knew that all Canadians would have been appalled.
We then have the recent Waterproof 3, Canada’s drinking water report card, in which the province of Ontario gets an A and the federal government gets an F. As my colleague from Timmins—James Bay has said, this is because the kind of report carding for provinces stops at the border of the reserve.
It says in that report that clean water is not just an environmental issue, that it is a health issue and a human rights issue. While the federal government now acknowledges the human right to water, it has not taken any steps to make that a reality for the people who live in this country.
This time last year, the Government of Canada signed the declaration for indigenous people wherein there is a responsibility on housing, sanitation, health and social security, and yet it has done nothing.
In September, we wrote to the minister and asked him to do something and explained that we would not be able to support any legislation that did not come with the resources that were necessary.
I believe that we, having written today’s motion, need to amend it. In talking with first nations and the opposition, I now wish to move, seconded by the member for Lac-Saint-Louis:
|That the motion be amended by replacing the words “no later than the spring of 2012” with the word “forthwith”.|