The federal government pays for water and sewer services on reserves, but only part of the health-care expenses for anyone who gets sick when those services fail. When First Nations residents get seriously ill, they’re flown out to provincial hospitals where the Manitoba government covers the bills.
That split jurisdiction could be at the root of why the problem is taking so long to fix.
Imagine if all the bills for Island Lake residents hospitalized for H1N1 flu and whooping cough and all the bills for controlling the superbug MRSA in city hospitals that treat Island Lake residents went straight to Ottawa. Maybe then Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq would look across the cabinet table at Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan and say, "Can’t you get those people running water?"
No one tracks provincial health spending in a way that would allow the Manitoba government to calculate how much the neglect of water and sewer services on reserves is costing provincial taxpayers.
"The problem might seem to be up in the Island Lake area, but it actually impacts the people living in the city here as well when it comes to... tying up the rooms in health-care facilities," said Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans.
Former premier Gary Doer was strong on rhetoric in 1994 when he was Opposition leader and members of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Pukatawagan came down with skin conditions and intestinal problems because of water problems.
"If this situation existed in any southern community in Manitoba, any of our communities, Mr. Speaker, it would be an absolute emergency that would be dealt with immediately," he raged in the legislature.
Northern chiefs were disappointed when Doer became premier in 1999 and did not follow in the footsteps of former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae. He negotiated a series of agreements with Ottawa that involved spending $60 million of provincial money to hook up and retrofit reserve homes in Northern Ontario, once Ottawa paid for the main water pipes and power lines.
The Ontario premier recognized that First Nations residents were also citizens of his province who ended up in provincial hospitals when their basic human needs were not met.
Evans said it’s unfair to make Island Lake residents wait five years or more for governments to find the money for essential water services that almost everyone else in Canada already has.
"When we look what Canada is doing in other parts of the world where people need our assistance, Canada is there to help out, to assist with millions of dollars. Why is it difficult for them to do that for our people here in our country?" the grand chief asked.
"They should put extra money in the pot because... it will be a long-term savings for everybody."
St. Theresa Point First Nation already gets $38 million a year in federal funding, but it's allocated to very specific programs like running schools and the health centre. The situation is similar for the other three First Nations in the Island Lake region.