Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Water infrastructure on First Nation communities must be about more than safe drinking water, said Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis, who wanted that point included in a resolution supporting First Nations clean drinking water class actions.
McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP have begun national class action litigation to address long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities. The class action has been certified in the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench on behalf of Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Chief Doreen Spence, and in the Federal Court on behalf of Curve Lake First Nation, Chief Emily Whetung, Neskantaga First Nation, and Chief Christopher Moonias.
But Louis took the opportunity to push water economy issues with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) Minister Marc Miller last week when Miller addressed chiefs Dec. 8, on the first day of the Assembly of First Nations’ two-day virtual annual general assembly.
“Under ISC, which is formula driven, it doesn’t allow for (water infrastructure) economics that can be used to actually generate the resources enough for economic development or other activities,” Louis said.
It is an important issue for Louis as last month the Okanagan Indian Band Group of Companies signed an agreement with EPCOR and Enterprise Canada to create the first Indigenous-owned and operated water utility in Canada developed through a Public-Private-Community Partnership. The partnership is to lead to commercial opportunities in utilities-related infrastructure, including water, wastewater and irrigation management systems.
“We are dependent on just one source, which is the department. It does not allow for those types of activities to actually generate revenue for socio-economic purposes,” said Louis.
He stressed that other communities in the Okanagan Valley were generating tens of millions of dollars from water resources taken from traditional lands.
“When is this ever going to end, this idea that we’re supposed to give, give, give and every other segment of Canadian society is take, take, take? There’s got to be something in there that’s more equitable to our people and recognizes that we require the same type of mechanisms or support that builds up our economies as anyone in this country,” said Louis.
Miller did not directly address Louis’ concern, but did say his government had to do better.
“Over the course of the last few years, I would concede that we haven’t done the best job we could in fostering those relationships in economic development, but we need to give that more thought as we allow communities or work with communities to flourish. And there are a number of elements that tie into that, whether that is different approaches to how we invest, different approaches how our relationship progresses. Closing that infrastructure gap obviously is key. But also resolving all the issues in and around land, which is such an asset, in a more expedient fashion,” said Miller.
The resolution which chiefs discussed the following day was amended to include that aspect of economic development: that the AFN “urge the federal government to immediately work in full partnership with First Nations in order to advance the meaningful implementation of Indigenous social and economic water rights across Canada.”
The resolution also directed the AFN to “encourage First Nations in their autonomy to enter into class action lawsuits should they believe it will benefit their First Nations.”
The class proceedings are structured so that First Nations can choose to participate in the action in order to seek solutions to their water issues going forward and assert claims for past and ongoing harms suffered by the community as a collective.
Curve Lake First Nation Chief Emily Whetung said there were more than 60 long-term water advisories still to be eliminated.
The resolution, which passed in an omnibus package with four other unrelated resolutions and received 98.5 per cent support of chiefs voting, followed the address on Dec. 8 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who confirmed his government would not meet its election promise of lifting all long-term drinking water advisories by March 31, 2021.
“It’s a complex process and we’ve worked in terms of progress as fast as possible. That being said today, there are still people who don’t have access to drinking water. This is unacceptable,” Trudeau said. “We are more committed than ever to get all long-term drinking water advisories lifted as soon as possible.”
He pointed out that under his watch, 98 long-term drinking water advisories had been lifted and 171 short-term advisories were prevented from becoming long-term advisories. As well, an additional $1.5 billion had been announced to continue the work on the clean drinking water commitment.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.