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Years of warnings

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The Canadian government has been warned repeatedly about the water crisis on First Nations reserves in a long string of alarming reports:

1977: The federal cabinet decided reserve communities ought to be supplied with public services to the same level as non-aboriginal communities in similar circumstances.

1996: The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported that water and sanitation systems in aboriginal communities were more often inadequate than those in non-aboriginal communities.

2001: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water in three-quarters of reserve systems.

2002: The report of the Walkerton Inquiry into contaminated drinking water in a non-native town noted that "the water provided to many Métis and non-status Indian communities and to First Nations reserves is some of the poorest quality water" in Ontario. "I encourage First Nations and the federal government to formally adopt drinking water standards, applicable to reserves, that are as stringent as, or more stringent than, the standards adopted by the provincial government," Justice Dennis O’Connor wrote.

2003: A national assessment of water and wastewater systems in First Nations communities found 29 per cent of the 740 community water systems assessed posed a potential high risk that could negatively impact water quality. By this time, the federal government had already spent about $1.9 billion since 1995 to help First Nations communities provide safe drinking water and wastewater services.

2005: The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development concluded that "despite the hundreds of millions in federal funds invested, a significant proportion of drinking water systems in First Nations communities continue to deliver drinking water whose quality or safety is at risk."

March 2006: The Canadian government launched an action plan for drinking water in First Nations communities to address the most serious water quality problems, establish national standards for the operation of treatment facilities and ensure mandatory training for all treatment plant operators. By 2012, the government of Canada expects to invest another $2 billion in First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure.

November 2006: The expert panel on safe drinking water for First Nations called for a federal law to set national standards for drinking water on reserves. However, it said the new law should only come after one last big push to make sure First Nations have enough money to build and run treatment systems comparable to those off reserve. "The spending should be seen as an investment — not just in healthier First Nations communities, but in trained workers and the kinds of business activity that depend on safe, high-quality infrastructure."

February 2007: The Assembly of First Nations and Winnipeg’s Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources developed a proposal for an independent First Nations Water Commission to bring all water systems up to standard and do long-term planning.

May 2007: The standing Senate committee on aboriginal peoples tabled its eighth report on safe drinking water for First Nations. Committee members agreed that a new law is needed to regulate water standards on reserve, but warned that without investing first in water systems and the people running them, "we risk introducing a regulatory regime that burdens communities and does little to help them meet legislated standards."

April 2008: "If you don’t have... access to clean water in a country like Canada, then we’re doing something wrong," said Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

May 2008: The Boiling Point report by the Polaris Institute said, "The fact that almost 100 First Nation communities cannot drink their water is a national disgrace. A country that prides itself on the promotion of human rights should be ashamed that communities are being neglected."

May 2009: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada awarded a contract to Winnipeg-based consultants for another national assessment of First Nations water and wastewater systems. The engineering assessment involving 607 First Nations communities should be completed in late 2010.

March 2010: Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said, "The government will undertake a comprehensive review of its current approach to financing First Nations infrastructure. To be undertaken in partnership with First Nations representatives, the review will focus on ways to more effectively support access by First Nations to alternative sources of financing, and approaches to improve the life-cycle management of capital assets." Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, a few weeks later, called it "the single biggest significant change in infrastructure management that has been seen in this department in a lifetime."

May 17: The Seeking Water Justice report issued by environmental groups a decade after the Walkerton drinking water tragedy said, "First Nations communities are by far the most vulnerable to waterborne diseases, boil-water advisories and associated health effects... Between 2003 and 2007, the average duration of a drinking water advisory in First Nations communities was 295 days."

May 26: The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was introduced in the Senate.

Aug. 6: Strahl was replaced by new Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan of B.C. Shortly after, St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover became his parliamentary secretary.

Sept. 30: 117 First Nations communities across Canada were under a drinking water advisory. The number has risen in recent years due to better monitoring of contamination.

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