Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grits to hammer Tories on reserve water

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OTTAWA -- The federal Liberals will use their opposition day in the House of Commons today to call for Ottawa to move on getting clean, running water into homes in northern Manitoba no later than this coming spring.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae will introduce the motion, which calls on the federal government to address the needs of First Nations with no access to clean running water in their homes. That would include nearly 1,400 homes in northern Manitoba.

The motion says the work should begin no later than spring 2012 and suggests the House of Commons should recognize the absence of clean, running water is an affront to justice and fairness.

"We're hoping we can draw attention to an issue all Canadians should be appalled about," said Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal aboriginal affairs critic. "We have Canadians living in Third World conditions and the federal government has direct responsibility for this."

Bennett said they'd like to see movement immediately but set spring 2012 as a target to allow the government time to put the program in its next budget.

A year ago, the Free Press drew attention to the plight of thousands of residents of northern Manitoba First Nations where the lack of access to clean, running water is a major public-health problem.

Residents rely mainly on filling pails of water from community taps or local lakes, the latter being untreated. Slop pails are used instead of toilets.

Bennett said it's not surprising the hardest-hit communities when H1N1 was at its height were those where the best defence was not easily available -- washing your hands with soap and water.

Chronic diarrhea, skin infections and the easy spread of the flu are regular occurrences.

The federal government has announced plans to upgrade water treatment plants in at least nine First Nations in Manitoba over the next five years, which will address major problems identified in a national assessment of water on reserves released last summer.

That assessment, however, did not address the issue of homes that don't actually have running water.

The government also plans to fund projects to extend water pipes to more homes in the Island Lake region over the next three years, but the plan does not identify any projects to retrofit homes to add indoor plumbing.

In correspondence between aboriginal affairs bureaucrats released to the Free Press through an Access to Information request, the government estimated it would cost $113 million to bring piped water to all the homes in Island Lake where it's feasible. (Not all homes can be connected to water pipes because of the terrain and the location of some homes.)

The $113 million estimate does not include the cost of retrofits to add bathtubs, toilets or other indoor plumbing.

The Island Lake Tribal Council is just finishing a survey to estimate the cost of those retrofits.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2011 A7

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