Brady Deaton is the McCain Family Chair in Food Security and professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph. Bethany Lipka is a Research Associate in the same department.
Prime Minister Trudeau's promise to end boil water advisories on First Nations' reserves in the next five years is a promise that is more likely to be kept if we make it our own. When we all "own" this promise, we empower solutions that recognize, build, and leverage relations between First Nations and governments throughout Canada, including our local or municipal governments.
For the last three years, we focused our research on water servicing agreements between First Nations' reserves and nearby municipalities. Just as many municipalities find it advantageous to receive their water from other nearby municipalities (York Region, for instance, receives water from Toronto), some First Nations' reserves engage in water servicing arrangements with nearby municipalities. For example, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation receives water from Haldimand County via a connection in Hagersville, Ontario.
Indigenous-local intergovernmental partnerships are not limited to water. In their recent book, A Quiet Evolution: The Emergence of Indigenous-Local Intergovernmental Partnerships in Canada, Christopher Alcantara and Jen Nelles document hundreds of varying types of agreements between First Nations and local governments. These agreements include fire protection, trash collection, animal control, coordinated efforts to recruit medical professionals, and others. The authors call on politicians, policymakers and citizens to work towards mutually beneficial Indigenous-local intergovernmental partnerships.
We agree. With respect to enhancing water quality, Indigenous-local agreements appear to be working. In our research, published in the Journal of Water Resources and Economics, we find that First Nations' reserves receiving water from a nearby municipality are significantly less likely to be under a boil water advisory.
Our more recent, preliminary research in Ontario encourages us to believe that there are untapped opportunities for Indigenous-local water servicing agreements. We identify 21 First Nation's reserves in Ontario that are geographically situated to potentially receive water services from a neighbour.
As of 2011, six of those 21 reserves had a boil water advisory on at least one of their water systems. In 2011, those six reserves comprised 13 per cent (six of 45) of the First Nation's reserves in Ontario that were identified by the Neegan Burnside (2011) study as having a boil water advisory on a water system serving some portion of their population.
Given our assessment of the situation, Indigenous-local water servicing agreements should be viewed as an important component in the portfolio of efforts needed to make good on our promise to First Nations. Recognizing the proximity of many First Nations to nearby municipalities is a first step. A second step, particularly for residents and local politicians, is to seek mutually beneficial exchanges in water and other services.
Successful Indigenous-local agreements require local leadership that enhances trust, transparency and communication between First Nation and non-First Nation communities. Importantly, this leadership is a necessary precondition to the associated engineering solutions – such as the placement of water lines and water treatment systems – that are commonly thought of as the solution.
We are not alone in our efforts to promote an expanded scope for voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges between Indigenous and municipal governments. Indeed, as we mentioned earlier, these relationships have been evolving for some time.
Building relationships that enable exchange between communities is key to the well-being of all people. This is especially true for water, the quality and quantity of which is essential to human health, and fundamental to ensuring food security. Enabling these exchanges is not the sole purview of the federal government. Trudeau's promise is bound to fail if we do not own it. Recognizing the potential for Indigenous-local agreements should provide an opportunity for many to explore opportunities in their own region – a first step in what will be a long-run effort to address inadequate infrastructure and achieve both our individual and collective interests.