On December 11, 2023, the Honourable Patty Hajdu, Federal Minister of Indigenous Services, tabled Bill C-61, An Act respecting water, source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure on First Nation lands.
This Bill will extend the inherent right to self-government outlined in the Constitution Act to include the jurisdictions of First Nations lands concerning water, source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure on, in and under First Nation lands.
Bil C-61 is intended to address the pleas coming from First Nations communities who have long been asking for safe drinking water legislation. Legislation that is already in place for all of Canada’s provinces and territories, but which is not currently afforded to Indigenous communities.
Many First Nations communities across Canada have lived under long-term boil water advisories that go on for years. In some cases, communities have gone without clean water for 25+ years.
Legislation like this is essential for First Nations people to have access to reliable safe drinking water, and effective wastewater management systems. Bill C-61 would recognize the First Nations’ stewardship over their own water.
“[This] is an important beginning. The First Nations Clean Water Act will hold this, and every future government, accountable to implementing and upholding First Nations’ inherent and treaty rights to water. We will use the tools in this legislation to protect the water as keepers of the lands and resources for all the generations to come,” said Erica Beaudin, Cowessess First Nation Chief.
It’s positive to see the responsibility of resource management and quality assurance being localized to First Nations communities. Local influence can accelerate the adoption of better and more advanced technologies and processes.
However, the Bill doesn’t come without its complexities. [The management of] water resources poses significant transboundary issues, both on the quality of water entering the communities and on the effluent (liquid waste/sewage) leaving the community and migrating to adjacent areas. A strong consultative framework will be required to navigate through these issues to ensure that the health and safety of all Canadians are of paramount concern.
Many existing water and wastewater regulations and standards have been developed over many decades and often from the perspective of larger, centralized utility models. By encouraging the development of solutions that reflect and embrace the interests of smaller, localized populations such as First Nations communities, this approach could contribute significantly to the goals of sustainability and circularity.
Jenica Atwin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous Services said in the second reading of the bill, that the Canadian government would work with people in First Nations communities to get all the work done.
“The federal government supports First Nations to recruit, train, certify and retain qualified water system operators in their communities, while also improving or maintaining water infrastructure to ensure longer life cycles for water assets.”
She added that it is crucial to eliminate the wage gap that exists between on and off-reserve water and wastewater operators. The 2016 Canadian census data found a 42 per cent wage gap between these two groups.
Continued investment from the federal government will give engineers in First Nations communities the resources to build safe water infrastructure in their communities and receive fair salaries for engineering and maintaining the water systems on their land, reinforcing their right to clean water and stewardship over their natural resources.
James Hotckies, M.Eng., P.Eng.
Enereau Systems Group Inc.
Member of OSPE’s Research and Innovation Task Force