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Alberta First Nations sue Ottawa over safe drinking water

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CALGARY - Four Alberta First Nations have filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an effort to resolve long-standing drinking water problems.

"We just want equality," said Chief Jim Badger of the Sucker Creek First Nation, where water lines are tainted by poorly designed sewers. As well, cisterns are so inadequate that dead mice float in them, Badger said.

"All we're asking for is equality with what other, white people, have, that Indians are not allowed to have."

The court action — filed by the Tsu T'ina, Ermineskin, Sucker Creek and Blood First Nations — asks Federal Court to force Ottawa to upgrade their water systems, provide ongoing support to keep them operating safely and to refund money the bands say the government has saved over the years by not doing so.

"Canada has avoided significant expenditures on account of its breaches of fiduciary duty and the obligations imposed by the honour of the Crown," says a statement of claim filed Monday. "Canada should therefore be required to disgorge the benefits it has received as a result of its misconduct."

The most recent estimate of the cost of bringing water treatment on reserves up to federal standards is about $1.2 billion, with another $470 million a year for maintenance.

The lawsuit argues that Ottawa built substandard water treatment on the four reserves and then didn't maintain them.

"(The government) failed to build water system facilities to any enforceable building standard or operational standard," says the claim. "(It also) failed to ensure water facilities were built in appropriate locations on-reserve, away from activities that had the potential to contaminate drinking water."

The results, the claim argues, have encouraged the breakup of First Nations communities, damaged the health of those who live there and slowed economic development. The failure to ensure one of the basic necessities of life is systematic discrimination, the lawsuit alleges.

"(It) demeans the position of aboriginals relative to their non-aboriginal neighbours and reinforces the impoverished and disadvantaged position of aboriginal people within Canadian society."

Safe drinking water on reserves has been a public issue since before 2003, when a government report found three-quarters of all water systems on reserves were at high or medium risk of failure.

Two years later, the auditor general found higher standards needed to be backed up with sufficient resources. That conclusion was echoed the following year by a panel convened by then-aboriginal affairs minister Jim Prentice.

A third study in 2011 found little had changed since 2003.

Badger's reserve isn't the only one where water and sewer lines cross-contaminate.

"A lot of our community members are suffering from stomach infections that are due to unsafe drinking water," said Dorothy Firstrider of the Blood band. "A lot of our infants are constantly being treated for a lot of infections that are due to unhealthy drinking water."

Water on the Ermineskin reserve is often so bad members have to drive to the nearest town to buy bottled water, said Chief Craig Makinaw.

The Harper government has said it's spent about $3 billion since 2006 on aboriginal water systems.

Lawyer Clayton Leonard, who represents the bands, said most of that was spent prior to the 2011 assessment.

"How many times do you get to reannounce the same amount of money? If you spent $2 billion, and then you find that 73 per cent of First Nations still face serious drinking water issues, it's a pretty clear indication it's not enough."

The government legislated tougher standards last fall that made bands responsible for operation of their water treatment facilities. Aboriginals say it's not fair to give them the responsibility without the resources to back it up.

The claim alleges that the transfer of responsibility for water didn't come with the resources to do the job.

"Canada knew ... that First Nations, including the plaintiff First Nations, did not have the resources or skills required to maintain and operate their already deficient water systems," the statement says.

"Further, Canada only partially funded the operations of on-reserve water treatment systems and maintenance costs regardless of a First Nation’s ability to generate the rest of the funding."

The lawsuit's claims have not been proven in court. The federal government has not yet filed a statement of defence.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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