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First-ever water standards promised to native reserves

Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice is set to announce the first-ever national water standards for native reserves within two weeks.

But meeting the new federal guidelines will require millions of dollars in upgraded equipment and training.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Mr. Prentice said. "But we're going to change the way the system operates. We're going to identify people at risk and we're going to deal with them immediately."

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Just 40 per cent of water treatment plant operators on reserves are certified. And 76 of 615 native communities across Canada are under boil-water orders, Health Canada says. Some have dealt with related hazards for years.

The issue made headlines last October when 1,000 residents were removed from a remote Northern Ontario reserve. Many needed treatment for skin rashes and illness for which dirty water and poor sanitation were blamed.

"Like all other Canadians, I was appalled by what I saw at Kashechewan," Mr. Prentice said. "As long as I'm minister, I intend to do everything within my power to try to make sure that we identify situations where communities are at risk, and that we take action."

He will consult native leaders about what they need to reach national water-quality targets, he said. Ultimately -- he hopes within five years -- those benchmarks will be enforced as a prerequisite for related federal support.

"If we're going to be funding improvements and remedial action plans, we would expect that people would work toward the national standards."

Bureaucratic ineptitude and general neglect have been blamed for the fact that dozens of native communities still can't trust what comes out of the tap.

Canada's Environment Commissioner, Johanne Gélinas, rapped the former Liberal government last September for dragging its heels.

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Indian Affairs in 2001 found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water for three-quarters of reserve systems. Despite the looming threat, there were still no federal standards four years later.

Ms. Gélinas also said that about $1.9-billion spent to upgrade water services between 1995 and 2003 achieved little.

The federal government announced another $1.6-billion in 2003 to be spent over five years.

"There's adequate resources," Mr. Prentice said, adding that what's needed is a methodical plan to help reserves that are most at risk.

He said independent consultants for Indian Affairs have cited about 15 communities that fall into that category.

"The factors that you use to judge whether it's a community at risk depend on a number of things," he explained. "The source of the problem, the nature of the system, the extent to which the system is current or out of date, and the ability of operators, etc."

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Indian Affairs is also crafting an emergency response plan to define duties should another crisis occur.

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