Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin expressed concern about a proposed federal law that could leave B.C. municipalities footing the bill for the hundreds of millions needed to provide safe drinking water and sewage treatment on First Nations reserves.
The proposed Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, or Bill S-8, would let the federal government set enforceable health and safety standards for drinking water and sewage treatment on reserves, where the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction. Off-reserve, such standards are set and enforced by the provinces. But S-8 would also give a federal official broad powers to delegate the provision of drinking water and sewage treatment and enforcement of standards to third parties, which could include provincial and local governments.
This raises concerns for municipalities, including how they would recover the high cost of installing and maintaining these systems if they were required to do so, said Daykin, who chairs Metros aboriginal relations committee. He said municipalities were not consulted when the legislation was drafted.
Nobody wants to deny First Nations reserves access to clean, safe drinking water, he said. We just want to make it as clear as we can: Are there financial implications? Is there going to be an ability for the local government to recover their investment? And then, if there is a problem with the system on the reserve, whos responsible? Metro is right to be concerned, said NDP MP Jean Crowder, who represents Nanaimo-Cowichan.
The bill, S-8, does limit the Crowns liability and its not clear where that liability will be downloaded to; whether it will be downloaded to First Nations, provinces, municipalities, she said.
Say, for example, they deem that provincial regulations for waste water and drinking water will be the norm. What is the timeline and what are the resources that are required in order to meet those regulations? Metro, in cooperation with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, plans to send a delegation to Ottawa to address the parliamentary committee considering the bill, which originated in the Senate and has passed first reading in the House of Commons. The delegation will request clarity on cost recovery and liability, and ask the federal government to acknowledge that local governments will be affected by law, Daykin said. An assessment of 290 water and sewage systems serving B.C. First Nations, done by the federal government in 2009-2010, identified 53 per cent as high risk and in need of immediate attention, 18 per cent as medium risk and 29 per cent as low risk. The same report estimated the cost of upgrades on First Nations reserves across Canada at $4.7 billion.
The report identified three Metro reserves where water quality failed health guidelines: Burrard (Tsleil-Wau-tuth), Semiahmoo and Mats-qui. None of those First Nations returned calls on Friday.
First Nations responses to Bill S-8 has been mixed, but most oppose it, according to an Assembly of First Nations submission to the Senate. Some feel the legislation does not adequately recognize First Nations jurisdiction over water resources, while others worry that the federally imposed standards will be costly.
It is clear to the AFN that Bill S-8 will impose substantial new costs and responsibilities on First Nations without a committed transfer of resources, the submission said.
Currently, there are no legislative guarantees that an adequate level of funding will be provided to address dire needs of First Nations.
The federal Aboriginal Affairs department did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
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