OTTAWA -- The wait for indoor plumbing and clean, running water on reserves in northern Manitoba might almost be over.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan agreed Thursday to support a Liberal motion calling for action to bring clean, running water to northern First Nations no later than spring 2012.
"We are all in agreement the current situation is not acceptable," Duncan said in the House of Commons. "We are going to support this motion. It's a good motion."
Duncan also pledged Thursday an immediate commitment of $5.5 million for the four Island Lake First Nations in Manitoba, where more than half the homes lack indoor plumbing.
Several thousand people rely on water toted in pails from community water pipes and local lakes, sometimes walking several kilometres with buckets. About 1,400 homes on Manitoba reserves have no indoor plumbing and 800 of them are in Island Lake.
Many people have less access to clean water each day than is recommended by the United Nations. It leads to serious public-health problems including chronic diarrhea from drinking untreated water, skin ailments from not having enough water to bathe in and the spread of disease because people can't even wash their hands with soap and water.
The issue came to a head during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, which hit Island Lake communities harder than almost anywhere else in Canada. The Free Press highlighted the problem in a series that began running a year ago.
Duncan said his officials will meet with Island Lake chiefs today to begin discussing the specifics of the money, but he anticipates it will focus on materials needed to retrofit homes with plumbing as well as additional water and septic trucks.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper was surprised by the sudden announcement but elated by the news.
"It's a really good day," Harper said. "It's been a long time coming."
The Island Lake Tribal Council is just finishing a survey of its communities to determine the scope of what retrofits are needed.
About five years ago, Harper said, it cost between $35,000 and $40,000 to retrofit a single house with the pipes, fixtures, electrical wiring and water holding tanks needed.
Aboriginal Affairs estimates it will cost an additional $113 million to bring piped water to all the homes in Island Lake where it is feasible. Wells and septic fields are not an option because of the soil conditions, so homes where piped water isn't feasible will be served with water trucks and water holding tanks.
The government could not say exactly how many homes could be connected with $113 million. That money has also not been committed yet.
Duncan noted putting some money forward now means the communities can take advantage of this year's winter roads to start trucking in supplies. If the money was delayed entirely until the next budget it would mean little could be done until spring 2013. Moving supplies into the area is cost-prohibitive outside the short winter-road season.
Harper said he's thrilled they can start moving on this now.
Harper also wants the province to come to the table to help in an arrangement similar to the 1992 Canada-Ontario Retrofit Agreement.
That agreement was launched by then Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, who is now the federal Liberal leader. Rae introduced the opposition motion Thursday that jump-started the day's announcements. Although Ottawa technically has jurisdiction and funding responsibility for First Nations, the Ontario and Canadian governments jointly retrofitted more than 3,800 homes on northern First Nations in Ontario over a decade.
Rae said there is no greater symbol of the deep poverty some Canadians live in than the images of First Nations residents struggling to survive without access to enough clean water for drinking or bathing. Rae said he will acknowledge that when his party was in power not everything that should have been done was done, but that is not an excuse for the current government to abdicate the responsibility now.
Rae said he initiated the retrofit agreement as premier because visiting reserves without running water while campaigning in 1990 had a profound impact on him.
"There isn't a single member in this House who wouldn't be equally affected, he said.
The House of Commons spent most of the day Thursday debating the Liberal motion. It will be voted on next week.
Premier Greg Selinger said the province has repeatedly offered to help Ottawa with a program to retrofit homes in Manitoba but until now the response had been lukewarm.
"They seem more eager now," Selinger said.
Selinger would not put a dollar figure on what the province would contribute, and said the amount will partly depend on timing.
"We're willing to talk about a solution that gets things happening," he said.