Feds must set aside $8 billion for First Nation water infrastructure, settlements: courts

·3 min read

A recent court decision mandates billions of dollars be set aside to bring clean drinking water to a number of First Nations communities and to compensate community members who have lived for years under boil-water advisories and without access to clean water.

In a joint decision, the Federal Court of Canada and Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench approved an $8-billion settlement agreement.

In 2019 the northern Manitoba community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN) along with Ontario communities Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government that seeks to have access to clean drinking water recognized as a basic human right.

With the courts’ decision, $6 billion will now be set aside that the feds said would bring clean drinking water to First Nations communities over the next several years.

The agreement also includes billions of dollars in compensation for those who have lived for years without clean drinking water, as $1.5 billion will be set aside to compensate individual community members who have lived and suffered under boil-water advisories.

The agreement will apply to First Nations communities and individuals that have been subject to long-term boil-water advisories for one year or longer beginning in 1995.

In an affidavit, TCN Chief Doreen Spence said that TCN, a community of about 2,000 on-reserve members, has been under a boil-water advisory for more than three years, saying the community gets its drinking water from Split Lake, but that the water has been contaminated by upstream development and recurring flooding, as well as sewage that is periodically released into the lake.

According to the affidavit, Split Lake is currently contaminated with E.coli and large-scale blue-green algae blooms, which can cause serious illness.

While speaking on Thursday, TCN Band Councillor Nathan Neckoway said there is still a lot of work to be done to get clean drinking water into the community and added they already have bottled water for their members ordered for a least the next year.

He said the bottled water that is currently being flown in to the community barely covers the community’s needs.

“We are giving two or three crates of water to each home per week, but some of these homes have 10 or more people living in them, so it doesn’t last very long,” Neckoway said.

“It’s very challenging.”

And according to Neckoway the lack of clean tap water also affects residents’ health in other ways.

“Children are using the water to bathe and then they come down with serious rashes and bumps on their skin, so it’s a very bad situation out here,” Neckoway said.

Neckoway did call the decision a “good step” towards the community once again having clean drinking water.

“It’s a win for us for sure,” he said.

In his written decision, Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal called the agreement “historic” and “long overdue,” and said he hopes it "represents what many hope will be a turning point for Canada and First Nations.”

"Although the parties reached the settlement in just under two years, the courts acknowledge that Indigenous communities have been advocating for decades to ensure future generations’ access to safe water," Joyal wrote.

In Manitoba, there are currently two communities without access to clean water, as both TCN and the Shamattawa First Nation are currently under boil-water advisories.

In a news release, the federal government said it is committed to improving reliable access to safe drinking water in First Nations communities.

"The government of Canada will continue to work with all First Nations, to address water concerns," the news release said. "Together, we will develop sustainable, long-term solutions.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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