Ottawa is committing nearly $8-billion to settle two class-action lawsuits from First Nations over unsafe drinking water and to fix water-quality problems on dozens of reserve communities across the country.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced the agreement in principle on Friday, along with the leaders of three plaintiff communities – Curve Lake First Nation, Neskantaga First Nation and Tataskweyak Cree Nation – who expressed cautious optimism for the deal’s potential to end decades of health and social issues on reserves.
“We’ve reached an agreement that contains commitments to deliver the quality and quantity of water that most Canadians take for granted,” said Curve Lake First Nation Chief Emily Whetung, adding that the water in her community had sickened her and her family.
The agreement would provide $1.5-billion in compensation for roughly 142,000 people spread across 258 First Nations that have posted drinking-water advisories in recent years, and includes another $400-million for a First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.
A further $400-million would be distributed every year to ensure access to safe drinking water, reaching at least $6-billion by next decade.
Michael Rosenberg, a lawyer representing Indigenous communities in actions before the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench and the Federal Court, said a dispute-resolution process will hold the federal government accountable if it fails to ensure regular access to clean drinking water in residents’ homes. The parties are working on a final settlement agreement that Mr. Rosenberg anticipates will be completed by the end of August, before going to the courts for approval.
“This historic agreement recognizes a basic human right to clean drinking water, compensates those who were wrongly deprived of it, and gives First Nations confidence that the future will not resemble the past,” he said. “It is a remarkable shift.”
The federal government opted to settle out of court ahead of a summary judgment scheduled for October. Mr. Miller said Ottawa always had an eye on negotiating an agreement out of court.
“The reality is that a different government may have decided to go into court and fight this,” Mr. Miller said. “We’re not. We agree with the communities and we want to get that water into the communities. But there needs to be a binding process, a mechanism with teeth. That’s what the community has asked for and we’re glad to oblige.”
The plaintiffs argued that Canada has a fiduciary duty – as well as obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – to provide clean drinking water on First Nations reserves. They filed evidence demonstrating the ill effects of contaminated water, including photos of children covered in rashes.
During a teleconference on Friday, Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias said the water issue contributes to a sense of demoralization that has led to mental-health problems and even suicide. Elders in Neskantaga have to walk upward of a kilometre to fetch clean water, he said.
“Today, people are afraid to take baths, to take showers, because of the things it does to their bodies,” Mr. Moonias said. “This must change.”
With a potential fall election looming, the water problem was set to become a campaign issue. Earlier this week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh travelled to Neskantaga First Nation, where a water-quality advisory has been in place since 1995. He chastised the Liberal government for breaking a 2015 promise to eliminate water-quality advisories in all First Nations within five years and vowed to address the problem.
“For far too long, Indigenous people have had to fight in court for their basic human rights – including for access to clean drinking water,” Mr. Singh said after the Friday announcement. “This is wrong. It should never have come to this.”
In 2015, 93 communities faced such restrictions. As of June 16, that figure had dropped to 32, according to a government website tracking the issue. Since 2016, the government has committed more than $4.2-billion to water issues on reserves.
Ottawa will not provide a new date for the removal of all water-quality advisories, Mr. Miller said, preferring to focus on the complex needs of each community.
“I could sit here all day and try and give all the excuses in the world,” he said, “but there is no credible excuse for a country such as Canada to take this long.”
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