--> Getting It Right: First step for better water?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

First step for better water?

First Nations living on BC reserves face some of the most dangerous drinking water in Canada, revealed Indian Affairs Minister, Jim Prentice, yesterday in Ottawa.

Near to my heart is the Shuswap Band, given my high school years spent in Salmon Arm. There are 8000 Shuswap people still living in BC. Many are found on small, isolated reserves scattered up and down interior river valleys from Soda Creek to Spallumcheen.

Others have moved away from their traditional territory to larger centres like Kamloops or Williams Lake for better employment , education opportunities, and, frankly, healthier living conditions.

Besides the Shuswap, there are six other bands in this province facing the spectre of a water crisis like that which hit the Kashechewan Band in Northern Ontario last year.

Over 1000 residents were evacuated when health problems struck residents.

TV clips of children with disfiguring skin rashes confronted Canadians. Many of us had forgotten, or chosen not to remember, the sub-standard conditions endured by our aboriginal populations.

BC bands at Toosey, Toquaht, Lake Babine (Fort Babine), Canoe Creek, Semiahmoo, and Taku River Tlingit are also highly susceptible to contaminated water.

The package announced this week supplements a $1.6 billion package announced in 2003, but is outside the Kelowna Accord negotiated last fall under the leadership of Premier Campbell.

This water plan calls for a five-point plan to improve standards on all reserves in Canada, but kick-starts work in the 21 communities most at risk:

• Set standards for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and monitoring of reserve water plants.
• Ensure all systems are overseen by certified operators by 2007.
• Kick-start action plans for 21 First Nations considered most at risk.
• Help develop related legislation with input from First Nations.
• Require regular progress reports.

Uniquely under this plan, first nations themselves will be responsible for ensuring their communities meet the standards – a departure from previous paternalistic approaches to dealing with these often troubled communities.

Prentice reiterated what many have already said – money is not the problem on reserves but accountability and standards are.

Phil Fontaine, Head of the Assembly of First Nations was quick to praise the initiative. His interview on CTV was supportive of the Conservative government’s approach.

"I applaud the decision taken by the minister to address these communities immediately. They are in crisis and their situation requires an immediate response,” said Fontaine, who worked closely with Prentice and the government team to put the plan together.

There are nay-sayers, of course. The Federal Liberal critic pooh-poohs the notion that first nations can govern themselves. The Liberals, of course, have spent decades entrenching government into the lives of First Nations– with little success.

Clean water along with accountability, just might be the first step to a new relationship between the Federal government and our struggling aboriginal communities.

(As seen today in 24 Hours)

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