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A mother and son from the Island Lakes Region of Manitoba look on during a Winnipeg news conference on aboriginal cases of H1N1 flu in 2009.The Canadian Press

The Conservative government has thrown its support behind a Liberal bid to improve access to drinking water in first nations communities.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae introduced a motion in the House of Commons Thursday asking the government to address the fact there are still first-nations homes that have no running water.

The motion also asks the House to recognize "that the absence of this basic requirement represents a continuing affront to our sense of justice and fairness as Canadians."

Those who live on first-nations reserves are living in deep poverty and hardship, Mr. Rae said, "and the one most telling symbols and reflections of this hardship is the fact that there are hundreds of communities which do not have access to clean running water at the present time."

More than 40 per cent of the 1,880 first-nations homes in Canada that still do not have water service are located in four communities in Island Lake region, about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg on the Ontario border.

When Mr. Rae was the premier of Ontario in the early 1990s, he negotiated and agreement with Ottawa that provided first nations in his province access to clean running water and sewage treatment.

Mr. Rae said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has indicated a willingness to work with the federal government to reach a similar deal.

The federal government introduced a bill during the previous session that would require first-nations to meet certain standards of water provision. It did not provide funding to upgrade the systems.

But John Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, said his Conservative government has done much more to improve the lives of first nations members than the previous Liberal government.

"We are going to support this motion," he said. "It's a good motion from the standpoint that we are all in agreement that the current standards are unacceptable."

Mr. Rae replied that there is no government in the history of Canada that can say it has done everything possible to deal with the situation. "What we're asking this House to do is to say that these are conditions that cannot be allowed to continue."

Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal aboriginal-affairs critic, pointed out that the lack of water and the "third-world conditions" on reserves have contributed to major health problem in those communities, including the spread of H1N1 flu two years ago.

Mr. Rae's motion asked that action be taken no later than this spring. Ms. Bennett amended it to say that something must be done "forthwith." And Mr. Duncan said he would agreed to that.

His government, he said, has invested $2.5-billion on first-nations drinking- and waste-water systems. "I think we are going to be making some real progress in the short term," he said.

David Harper, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak ,which encompasses the four first nations where the water problem is most acute, praised the Liberal motion.

"I am calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government to immediately enter into negotiations with the chiefs of the Island Lake First Nations and the province of Manitoba to deliver clean running water within two years to each of the more than 800 homes in the Island Lake First Nations without water service" he said in a release issued Monday.

Mr. Harper has also asked that an agreement to perform federal-provincial retrofit agreement be concluded by Dec. 31 so that the plumbing and other equipment can be shipped over the winter roads in February and March. The ice roads are the only way to get large amounts of construction material into the communities and, if it is not delivered this winter, the water systems will have to wait another year.

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