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Turning Paper into Water

By Lisa Wolff
Director, Advocacy and Education

World Water Day - March 22, 2012

Paper and Water. Canada has lots of both. Let’s show First Nations Children they are precious resources too, and move faster to provide for their right to clean water.

In 2010, governments passed a resolution at the United Nations recognizing the universal human right to safe water and sanitation.  Last year, the Human Rights Council resolved that this right was already entrenched in international law. In fact, children’s right to safe drinking water has been recognized for more than twenty years, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Canada in 1991. So First Nations children have long had the right to equitable and guaranteed access to safe drinking water. But for some, it’s been a paper right for far too long.

Currently, 116 First Nations communities are under water advisories and have to boil water, buy it or otherwise lug it home. Sure, some other Canadians live under such advisories, but proportionally far fewer do. The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported that the incidence of waterborne diseases is several times higher in First Nations communities than in the general population, in good part because of inadequate or non-existent water treatment systems. Children tend to suffer more than anyone from such diseases.

Human rights are measured by “outcomes”, like who actually has safe water, and who is safe from waterborne diseases. Outcomes like these are directly related to inputs. Money is an important input. Adequate funding is necessary to build good water infrastructure and to train and pay water managers, as we all know. It’s often taken for granted that to achieve equitable outcomes, we need equitable inputs such as funding.

A legal framework can help ensure that funding is sufficient and used well, that it produces good outcomes such as healthier children, and that those responsible for a right are also accountable for it. This month, the federal government introduced a bill, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, that aims to advance the water quality in First Nations communities to the standards enjoyed by most other Canadians.

The protection and management of water is a customary right that First Nations have not relinquished through treaties. First Nations also have established rights, constitutionally and internationally, to be meaningfully consulted and accommodated in legal, policy and administrative decisions affecting them. The new bill replaces a previous bill introduced last year, S-11, following greater consultation with First Nations.

Now we are close to having a legal framework to provide for First Nations the universal human right to water. Yes, it’s more paper. But this is a critical step, since the realization of a human right requires accountability for that right. Accountability for basic human rights, such as the right to safe water, must be shared by responsible governments; in Canada, the federal government and First Nations must share accountability.

Currently, there are no legal standards governing water quality for First Nations, as there are for most other Canadians. But a new law without new capacity will not ensure First Nations children and communities have safe, clean water. Back to our inputs: First Nations require the necessary capacity (such as ongoing training), resources and infrastructure to be accountable for their responsibilities, including any legal liabilities. Similar to the findings of the recent study of First Nations education, a First Nation Water Commission, as proposed by the Assembly of First Nations, could provide leadership and technical support to community planning, infrastructure, training and management to protect, regulate and manage water and wastewater. But the current bill has no funding attached to it. Yes, the federal government has been investing in First Nations water, but it’s the outcomes that are the most important measure of the fulfillment of a human right. Despite the current funding, too few First Nations children have safe and clean water.

Government estimates released this month show that the current First Nations water and wastewater action plan together with its spend on water is scheduled to wind up in a few weeks. The federal government estimates that closing the gap in First Nations water systems, to the level enjoyed by other Canadians whose provincial and local governments provide it, would cost $5 billion over 10 years. It may also take years to negotiate the regulations and funding that will make the Bill work. That is a long time for children to wait for their right to clean, safe water.

The new bill proposes a framework for First Nations to develop culturally appropriate and sound water management systems and to govern water and wastewater on reserve lands and on other First Nation owned lands. It does not guarantee that First Nations children will have safe water.  The next step forward is federal budget on March 29. We’ll  wait until then to see if funding will be allocated for what’s needed to invest in the right of all children for clean water. But First Nations children should not have to wait for years after that to turn paper – bills, laws and money – into water. 

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