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Liberals sound alarm on native water quality

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett speaks to reporters in Ottawa on July 19, 2011.


A government study that found nearly 40 per cent of water systems on native reserves pose high levels of risk is proof Ottawa needs to act quickly fund improvements, the Liberals say.

The results of the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems were released last week by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

Conducted over two years, the study looked at water systems in 97 per cent of first-nation communities in Canada and found that nearly 1,800 reserve homes were without water or sewage service. It said $1.2-billion would be required immediately to bring these systems up to the Aboriginal Affairs department's own protocol.

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"The problem is far more serious than previously reported, with 39 per cent of first nations drinking water systems rated as high risk by the assessment," Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, her party's aboriginal affairs critic, told an Ottawa news conference Tuesday.

"The government has an obligation to commit additional new funding to address the immediate needs, in addition to an estimated $4.7-billion over the next 10 years," she said.

The Conservatives previously introduced legislation in the Senate that would require aboriginal communities to meet federally dictated standards for water supplies but many native groups opposed it because it provided no money for the upgrades required. It died on the order paper when the government fell prior to the election but is expected to be reintroduced.

"While there is a recognized need for a legislative framework for safe drinking water, the government must uphold its duty to work in partnership with first nations, and more importantly, ensure that the revised legislation is reflective of the concerns raised during the consultation process," Ms. Bennett said.

Mr. Duncan acknowledged when the report was released that it confirms more needs to be done to improve the quality of drinking water and waste-water systems on reserves.

Work is underway to address these issues, he said, noting that Ottawa expects to improve 15 water systems this year and plans to invest in the infrastructure of an additional 57 water systems by 2015-2016.

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Linda Duncan, meanwhile, said it's time for reviews to stop and improvements to reserve water systems to begin. While one in four of the systems was rated to be critically deficient, she said, over 70 per cent were found to pose some risk.

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Ms. Duncan also said she was taken by the fact that the report repeatedly stressed that any improvements must be cost effective.

The water systems must be are affordable in the long term but what the government should be really concerned about is keeping the costs down for the first nations, she said. One way to do that is to take active measures to protect the source water. "They need to also be looking, not just at the protection of surface water but also of ground water."

As to the reintroduction of the legislation, which Ms. Duncan argues would abrogate aboriginal rights, she said the minister has indicated to her that the government is prepared to accept some amendments. "Frankly," she said, "they should table in the House of Commons for full and open debate."

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