The Conservative government is taking steps to get running water into the homes in first-nations communities in northern Manitoba where thousands of people are living in what has been described as third-world conditions.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told the House of Commons during the Question Period Thursday that the government has spent $2.5-billion on improving water services in aboriginal communities.
"I am proud to announce today that, in addition to those ongoing commitments, we are also providing an additional $5.5-million to support infrastructure improvements in the Manitoba Island Lake communities."
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.
Officials from the Aboriginal Affairs department plan to travel to northern Manitoba on Friday to talk with local first-nations leaders about how to fix the problem.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said Thursday his province would be a willing partner in the federal effort to get running water to the communities that do no have it.
"We are already training people in the north to have the trade skills necessary to do the work. We are already investing in roads, up there," Mr. Selinger said in a telephone interview.
"So we are prepared to be part of the solution," he said. "We are pleased that they are showing tangible interest in moving forward on this."
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Duncan threw his 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 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."
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.
David Harper, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak ,which encompasses the four first nations where the water problem is most acute, said he hopes Ottawa and the province are willing to move quickly.
"What we are talking about is a nation-to-nation talk between the federal government, the provincial government, and of course the first nations," he told The Globe and Mail. "All three parties need to get together now."
Mr. Harper wants the agreement in place by December 31 so that 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.
"The winter roads issue is a challenge because it's hard to move things in and out of there," Mr. Selinger said. "So if we can get things moving and get some materials up there this winter, it allows us to get things going faster."