Water, water everywhere: nor any drop to drink.

AuthorWatt, Dean
PositionSpecial Report on Aboriginal Law and the Environment

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When it comes to the safety of drinking water, residents of First Nations communities do not benefit from a comparable level of protection to that of people who live off reserves.

Office of the Auditor General 2005 Report of the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development

Introduction

Clean drinking water is a recognized necessity for continued human health. Yet, despite the existence of long standing federal policies aimed at ensuring that First Nations homes and communities are provided with the physical infrastructure that meets commonly accepted health and safety standards and is similar to that available in neighboring, non-Indian communities or comparable locations, many First Nations communities in Canada do not have consistent access to clean drinking water. Extended boil water advisories are common. Communities have been evacuated. To an extent, First Nations communities share a number of challenges with other small and remote water systems, such as high capital and operating costs, and difficulty recruiting, training, and retaining qualified operators. However, water systems on reserves face additional challenges.

In 2006, the Government of Canada launched its Plan of Action for Drinking Water on First Nations Reserves. As a part this Plan of Action, a panel of experts was established to hold proceedings to examine the problem and identify potential regulatory framework solutions. The expert panel's report identified two underlying causes for the poor condition of First Nations water systems: the absence of a meaningful regulatory framework to create and enforce clean drinking water regulations; and the continued failure of the federal government to provide sufficient funding to First Nations to enable them to construct and sustainably operate water systems. This article provides a brief, high-level overview of these underlying causes, some of the conclusions made by the expert panel, and some expressed priorities of First Nations for addressing these problems.

Lack of effective standards and effective regulatory enforcement

The Constitution Act gives the federal Parliament exclusive power to make laws in relation to "Indians and lands reserved for Indians". The federal government has created several pieces of legislation that relate directly to First Nations communities and their use and control of land and resources. The Indian Act and the First Nations Land Management Act are examples...

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