The federal government is sending Indian Affairs parliamentary secretary Shelly Glover to meet with Island Lake chiefs this weekend to discuss what can be done to address the lack of basic services in the impoverished Manitoba region.
St. Theresa Point Chief David McDougall confirmed Tuesday the meeting he requested in a Nov. 10 letter was granted.
"We want to discuss the options and what can happen to address some of the immediate concerns," said McDougall, who chairs the Island Lake Tribal Council.
He believes the government is listening after a series of Free Press stories drew attention to the health problems caused by lack of running water in hundreds of the area's homes.
Meanwhile, northern Manitoba's Grand Chief David Harper said it's time for the Manitoba government to commit its own cash to retrofit First Nations homes with water and sewer services, as Ontario did in the 1990s. He said the money could come from revenue generated by hydroelectricity and other resources taken from traditional aboriginal territory.
"It is time for the province of Manitoba to stop drawing a line in the sand between federal and provincial responsibilities when it comes to ensuring there is basic infrastructure in all of Manitoba's communities," Harper said in a news release Tuesday night.
"Is the premier and the minister of aboriginal and northern affairs asking us to believe that the province just learned of the water crisis in our communities through the recent articles in the newspapers?"
McDougall said the stories lit a fire under the chiefs, noting that sometimes the communities become complacent and just accept things as they are.
"We didn't ask for the publicity, it came to us from people who knew things weren't right."
The chief said he's tired of confrontation with the government and wants the meeting with Glover to be productive.
The four Island Lake chiefs called on the federal government Monday to help fund a $1.4-billion all-season road from Norway House that would make it easier to transport construction and plumbing supplies.
In Tuesday's throne speech, the government said "it is unacceptable that there are more First Nation homes without running water in Manitoba than in any other province or territory. Our government will work with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, First Nation leadership and the federal government to have the current water infrastructure schedule greatly accelerated."
However, Premier Greg Selinger has only committed to spending money on a road through Crown land, which could take a decade or more to complete -- not to funding retrofits on reserve.
A spokeswoman from the Manitoba office of Indian Affairs said the department is willing to work with Island Lake First Nations on an emergency plan for water supply and sanitation.
"The department has not received such a request, however, we would be willing to work with the First Nations if such a request was made."
First Nations have the authority to use existing band funding to purchase things such as portable toilets, the Indian Affairs spokeswoman said. However, McDougall said St. Theresa Point is working its way out of debt and doesn't have the cash to outfit more than 300 homes with water barrels and concrete-based outhouses from which sewage can be collected.
NDP MP Niki Ashton asked in question period in Ottawa Tuesday whether the Conservative federal government will join with the Manitoba government to speed up construction of an all-weather road into Island Lake.
Infrastructure Minister Chuck Strahl said there were specific allocations in the last budget for First Nations communities. "Sometimes, proposals come through that do not meet the criteria or are not affordable by different levels of government.
"We do all that we can to meet the needs of First Nations and other Canadians."