OTTAWA -- Legislation to set water-quality standards on reserves passed in Parliament Monday three years after the idea was first introduced.
However, First Nations leaders don't like the bill today any more than they did in 2010 and may take their grievances to the courts.
Bill S-8 passed third reading with the governing Conservatives voting for it and the NDP and Liberals against.
The legislation gives the federal government the ability to develop regulations to establish quality standards on reserves for both drinking water and waste water. Provincial governments have jurisdiction for water standards but that jurisdiction does not extend to reserves.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said the bill oversteps constitutional protections for treaty and aboriginal rights and takes away First Nations' control over their own water.
"We've got to make a hard stance here," he said, although he wouldn't say specifically what that means.
Aim©e Craft, head of aboriginal law for the Canadian Bar Association, said she expects the bill will end up being challenged in court because the new policy essentially trumps First Nations' treaty rights.
"It's the first time we've ever seen this in federal legislation," she said.
The federal government has repeatedly promised it won't implement the regulations until system improvements are made and said the regulations will be developed in consultation with First Nations on a region-by-region basis.
Craft said few trust those assurances because the government has not given any hint of what it thinks the standards should be, nor has it established any kind of long-term plan to bring water infrastructure on First Nations up to par.
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Tuesday the government consulted with First Nations for seven years on the bill, and as a result made 11 amendments to the original version.
"The proposed legislation is a crucial element of a larger action plan that the government began implementing seven years ago, the objective of which is to ensure First Nations have the same health and safety protections for drinking water in their communities as other Canadians," said Andrea Richer.
Further consultations with First Nations will take place to develop the regulations, said Richer.
Water quality on reserves is a multi-billion-dollar problem. In 2011, the most comprehensive report on First Nations water ever done was released and found it would cost at least $6 billion to bring the drinking and waste-water systems on reserves up to par. Two out of every five reserve water systems posed a high risk to human health, including unsafe source water, poorly trained operators or a lack of proper reporting procedures for water monitoring, the study found.
In Manitoba the report was criticized for not including the reserves where there is no running water, an issue brought to light by a Free Press series in 2010. The federal government in 2011 agreed to a Liberal motion calling for action to address the lack of running water, with an initial $5.5-million investment to retrofit homes in the Island Lake area.
Further improvements are awaiting more comprehensive reports on exactly what is required.