Curve Lake First Nation chief says pending water settlement will have meaningful impact for community

·4 min read

CURVE LAKE — Curve Lake First Nation Chief Emily Whetung is optimistic there will soon be clean water in her community following Federal Court approval of a water class action settlement agreement on Dec. 22, which includes a commitment of at least $6 billion for safe drinking water on reserves and $1.5 billion in compensation for individuals deprived of clean drinking water.

A 60-day appeal period follows the courts’ approval of the agreement, “so it’s the last piece,” Whetung said.

If finalized, “it will mean that we get to build a water treatment plant that services every member of our First Nation living in our community,” Whetung told The Examiner.

“The structure of the settlement means that (the federal government) funds building the water treatment plant that we need. The government will commit to paying the actual costs of building it.”

The First Nation received federal funding in 2020 for the design of a new water plant. The plant now serving the community was constructed in the 1980s and inadequately disinfects water, with 10 to 15 boil-water advisories a year, said Whetung. Members of the community have contracted E.coli due to contaminated water.

“We’ve been going through the design phase and we’re anticipating wrapping that up in early spring, and then we’re very hopeful that we’ll move forward very quickly with the building of a water treatment plant. It’s too early to estimate a complete date. It will still be a year or two before it’s complete, but we’re hoping we’ll be able to start in the next year.”

The national class action litigation was commenced by Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario against the federal government in 2019 “for failing to address prolonged drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves across Canada.”

In July 2021, the Government of Canada agreed to settle the class action for about $8 billion in response to prolonged drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves across Canada, but it required court approval.

According to a news release from Indigenous Services Canada, the settlement includes:

$1.5 billion in compensation for individuals deprived of clean drinking water.

The creation of a $400 million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.

A renewed commitment to Canada’s Action Plan for the lifting of all long-term drinking water advisories.

A commitment of at least $6 billion to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserve; planned modernization of Canada’s First Nations drinking water legislation.

The creation of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water.

Support for First Nations to develop their own safe drinking water bylaws and initiatives.

Whetung said varying degrees of emotional harm can result from the lack of clean drinking water.

“When you think about not being able to practise your cultural beliefs because you don’t have access to clean water; and then there’s the impact of knowing that you can’t provide one of the necessities of life for your children in the community … do you choose to immerse them in the culture and the language with grandparents and extended family or do you choose to live somewhere where you don’t have to panic when you put them in a bath?” she said.

In Curve Lake, where some members have had to make that decision, Whetung said a finalized deal will mean future generations will be able to live and grow in the community.

She said it’s important to note the court decision is not a solution for all First Nation communities facing a lack of access to clean drinking water in Canada.

But Canadians have started to realize that “enough to enough” and there’s a will from them to tell politicians more must be done,” she said.

“It (the settlement) doesn’t fix it for everybody, for all First Nations. It doesn’t provide access to clean drinking water in all communities and that’s the next step, but we’ve opened the door.”

Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him at bburke@metroland.com.

Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner

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