Editorial

If First Nations residents choose to raise a glass of water to toast a historic court decision delivered last week, many will only be able to fill their glass with water that’s bottled or melted from snow. Perhaps appropriate wording for such a toast might be: “We now have hope that access to safe water will soon be as simple as turning on a tap.”

If First Nations residents choose to raise a glass of water to toast a historic court decision delivered last week, many will only be able to fill their glass with water that’s bottled or melted from snow. Perhaps appropriate wording for such a toast might be: "We now have hope that access to safe water will soon be as simple as turning on a tap."

$8-billion drinking water settlement ‘long overdue’ for First Nations

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES						</p>																	<p>The Federal Court of Canada and Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench have jointly approved an $8-billion agreement to bring safe drinking water to First Nations and compensate community members who have lived without it for years.						</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Federal Court of Canada and Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench have jointly approved an $8-billion agreement to bring safe drinking water to First Nations and compensate community members who have lived without it for years.

Posted: 1:57 PM Dec. 29, 2021

In what is being described as an “historic settlement,” the Federal Court of Canada and Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench have jointly approved an $8-billion agreement to bring safe drinking water to First Nations and compensate community members who have lived without it for years.

The “long overdue” agreement “represents what many hope will be a turning point for Canada and First Nations,” Manitoba Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said in a written decision.

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The $8-billion agreement "represents what many hope will be a turning point for Canada and First Nations," Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said. In a joint decision released Dec. 28, his court, and the Federal Court of Canada, approved the agreement to bring drinking water to First Nations, and to compensate community members who have had no running water for many years.

The money will go to First Nations that have been subject to long-term drinking-water advisories of one year or longer, beginning in 1995. At least $6 billion is earmarked to bring safe drinking water to reserves over the next nine years, and $1.5 billion is to compensate individual community members who have been deprived of clean water.

Chief Justice Joyal spoke accurately when he called the agreement "long overdue." It has sometimes seemed the fight to get safe water has moved at the speed of glacial ice.

A Free Press investigation in 2010 and 2011, titled "No Running Water," exposed appalling conditions on Manitoba First Nations. Newspaper staff visited six First Nations over the course of seven months to chronicle the perilous living conditions of residents struggling with poor water and sewage service.

The investigation found more than 3,000 First Nations homes in this province did not have clean running water, many in the Island Lake region of northeastern Manitoba. Nearly half of the region’s 10,000 residents collected water for daily use from nearby lakes and communal taps.

One story described how, with no toilets, residents either walked to outhouses on freezing winter nights or resorted to using an indoor bucket, dumping its contents outside in the morning. Some of the germ-laden refuse washed into the lake, after soaking ground near where children play.

Skin conditions and chronic diarrhea are common in homes where it’s hard to find enough water to keep clean. But sometimes the results are more deadly, such as when superbug infections and killer flus are involved.

The investigation revealed more than 40 per cent of the homes on Canadian First Nations without running water were in Manitoba, even though Manitoba has only 15 per cent of the country’s reserve housing stock.

The "No Running Water" series sparked interest from academics, human-rights groups and politicians, and was used as a resource by researchers from a variety of fields to collaborate with First Nations communities to address the issues of safe water and sanitation.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Chief Justice Glenn Joyal.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Chief Justice Glenn Joyal.

Although the $8-billion agreement approved last week would seem to be a substantial sum, water and sewer infrastructure is costly in communities where pipes skirt bedrock, and heavy equipment and bulky supplies must be moved in by winter roads, which are sometimes open only a few weeks a year.

Also, many existing First Nations homes must undergo major renovations to add plumbing and sewage and water storage tanks.

The construction challenge of bringing safe water to remote communities is substantial, but it’s essential to finally end this country’s shameful record of neglecting some First Nations to the point that residents need to use buckets as toilets.

Belatedly, Canada is trying to do better. Last week’s court decision will let the money flow. The next challenge is to make the water flow.