Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In a heartbreaking moment, Neskantaga First Nation health director Sharon Sakanee told Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu about how her son took his own life in 2012 and was never once able to turn on the tap in his home on the reserve and enjoy a safe drink of water.
Sakanee said the safe drinking water settlement agreement with the federal government will not allow her to claim compensation for her son.
That agreement, which is the result of a class action undertaken by Neskantaga First Nation, Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Curve Lake First Nation, only allows claims dating back six years.
“I can’t even do anything about my late son, because the courts are saying you only have to go back so many years. What about these people that we lost? That never even got that chance to have safe drinking water in the community? Who’s going to speak up for them?” said Sakanee.
On Feb. 1, 1995, a boil water advisory was issued for Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario. It has not yet been lifted.
In a virtual news conference April 28, Hajdu lauded the settlement as “reconciliation in action.”
However, neither chiefs for Neskantaga First Nation nor Tataskweyak Cree Nation provided a ringing endorsement of the $8 billion settlement of the two national class-action lawsuits that was approved by the Federal Court and Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench.
The settlement covers First Nations and their residents who were subject to water advisories for at least one year between Nov. 20, 1995 and June 20, 2021. First Nations that meet these criteria may opt into the settlement and will receive a no-strings attached amount of $500,000. At least 250 First Nations and 140,000 on-reserve individuals are expected to be included.
The settlement sets out $1.5 billion in compensation for individuals. Whatever compensation their residents receive, the First Nations will get dollars equal to 50 per cent of that amount. (Those funds will not be taken from individual payments).
Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias said that the European legal system “victimizes the most vulnerable” and said that was exactly what was happening with the limitations set for claiming compensation.
“Even when a boil water advisory is lifted, there’s going to be further suffering…This is real. This is the truth about what’s happening in our community and maybe other communities when you don’t have the basic necessity of life, when you don’t have access to clean drinking water in your homes,” said Moonias.
Sakanee also spoke about rashes and other skin conditions, as well as a person who had diabetes and had to soak their foot three times daily was unable to care for it because of unsafe water and had to have the foot amputated.
“We live in one of the richest countries in the world and we don’t even have clean drinking water. I think enough is enough. Something needs to be done. It’s been way too long. And we’re starting to see more and more mental health issues arise in the community because of this,” said Sakanee.
“Not having clean drinking water has devastating effects,” agreed Chief Doreen Spence of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
Her Manitoba nation has had a boil water advisory in place since 2017.
She said while compensation was welcome, the focus of the settlement for her was on the other aspects that would allow her community to have safe drinking water.
However, she was adamant that Tataskweyak Cree Nation would determine whether or not the water was safe to drink and would not rely on Health Canada. She said she did not want that to be another “stumbling block.”
“If you talk about this reconciliation with First Nations then you really need to hear what we want. You really need to hear our input,” said Spence.
To that end, Tataskweyak Cree Nation has hired its own hydrologist, she said, and expects it will take at least two more years before their boil water advisory is lifted.
While Curve Lake First Nation Chief Emily Whetung said she understood the frustrations that had been voiced by the other chiefs and their community members, she still had a positive view of the settlement.
“We will start now and continue to ensure that our future generations have access to clean drinking water,” said Whetung.
She said the commitments enforced by the courts in the agreement to deliver safe drinking water in “best-effort” timelines responded to the urgency of the situation.
Hajdu said Budget 2022 had set the stage for repealing and replacing the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which is part of the agreement. She said she is “hopeful” Parliament will review legislation quickly and that she could provide updates this year on a replacement. Replacement legislation must be introduced by Dec. 31.
Support will be provided to First Nations to develop their own safe drinking water by-laws and initiatives.
The agreement also calls on construction, upgrading, operation, and maintenance of water infrastructure in First Nations communities; the creation of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water; confirm adequate and sustainable funding for water and waste water systems; and the creation of a $400 million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.
“My hope broadly is that we will be able to reach that point where human rights are recognized and Indigenous rights are recognized and we don’t have to go to court (anymore) to make that happen,” said Whetung.
The claims process under the settlement opened to submissions on March 7. First Nations communities have until Dec. 22 to file their claims, while individuals have until March 7, 2023.
There are still 33 long-term drinking water advisories in place in 28 First Nations. All presently have action plans in place to be removed and 40 per cent are expected to be dealt with by year’s end, said ISC senior director Nelson Barbosa.
The remaining boil water advisories fall beyond the 2015 campaign promises made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to have safe drinking water in all First Nations by 2020.
Barbosa said a “myriad of potential conditions” played into being unable to meet that target date, including construction delays, seasonal delays, and coronavirus pandemic complications.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.