OTTAWA -- Northern Manitoba aboriginal leaders want clean running water in every home on reserves within two years.
Four chiefs travelled to Ottawa Wednesday to make their plea on Parliament Hill, just a month after a Free Press series revealed that more than 1,400 homes on northern Manitoba reserves have no running water.
"Clean running water in every home is basically what we need here today," said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper.
The lack of running water has been blamed for health issues including skin problems and the easy spread of infections like flu. Without running water, even basic hygiene like handwashing is difficult.
Last year, Manitoba's Island Lake region, where half the homes have no running water, was hit hard by the H1N1 flu virus and this year two people have died there after getting seasonal flu, Harper said.
Bringing running water to 1,448 northern Manitoba homes would require adding kitchen sinks, toilets and bathtubs to houses built without plumbing. In many cases, holding tanks would need to be installed for water delivered by truck. Most reserves have water-treatment plants capable of supplying water for the holding tanks.
Harper estimates it would cost $66 million -- $33 million for retrofitting homes to make them ready for running water and another $33 million to pipe water to some homes.
Manto Sipi Cree Nation Chief Michael Yellowback said Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq claims all the problems can't be fixed overnight, a view he called insulting.
"How many thousands of overnights have Manitoba northern First Nations already waited?" Yellowback asked. "How many more people in northern Manitoba First Nations must get sick because they can't wash their hands before Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will speak up in cabinet?"
A spokeswoman for Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan said Ottawa has spent $2.5 billion on aboriginal water and wastewater infrastructure since 2006, including $275 million on water systems in Manitoba. Another $130 million is earmarked for the next five years.
"I want to reinforce that this government is committed to working with partners to make sure we move forward to address the important issue of water and wastewater," Michelle Yao said.
That money does not include bringing running water to more Island Lake homes until 2013.
Yao said First Nations have to be smart when planning their communities, including the location of new homes.
"If they choose to build homes far apart, this will cost additional money in order to run pipes out," she said.
Liberal Indian Affairs critic Todd Russell said the Conservative government has enough money to commit $16 billion to new fighter jets, and spent $130 million on advertising in 2009, three times the amount spent three years earlier.
"The Harper government has chosen not to invest in First Nations communities," Russell said.
Grand Chief Harper said every time there is a crisis elsewhere in the world, such as the earthquake in Haiti last January, Canada and Canadians jump in with lots of money and aid.
He wondered why can't they do the same for First Nations living in Third World conditions.