Canada’s Minister Hajdu Announces Jointly-Developed Bill to Protect First Nations’ Water Resources

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Patty Hajdu, Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister, announced her intention to present a new legislation this coming fall. This proposed law, according to Hajdu, signifies a significant step towards inclusive policy development with the First Nations. She lends great emphasis on the influence of Indigenous Peoples in the formulation of this legislation.

The bill’s primary focus lies in addressing issues pertaining to the protection of fresh water resources in First Nations communities and the water bodies inflowing into them. Hajdu, in an exhaustive interview with The Canadian Press, voiced her enthusiasm about the legislation, viewing it as an opportunity to demonstrate that collaborative efforts are possible even within the Westminster parliamentary framework.

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This legislation, following a year after the Canadian government repealed the criticized 2013 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in June 2022, is aimed at contributing to the development of regulatory measures supportive of the First Nations’ access to clean drinking water and effective wastewater treatment. The original act met widespread disapproval, with First Nations communities expressing concerns over inadequate funding and potential infringements of constitutional rights.

The approval of an $8-billion class-action lawsuit settlement in December 2021 by the Federal Court and the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba marked a significant moment for First Nations communities. Surviving drinking water advisories for more than a year between November 1995 and June 2021, these communities were allocated compensations, monetary support, and a renewed commitment to eradicate all long-standing drinking water advisories.

Hajdu’s work alongside the Assembly of First Nations and various stakeholders led her to understand the importance First Nations communities place on governing their own water delivery systems. While the Assembly was unavailable for an interview, Hajdu expressed that the new bill will align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a legislation Canada committed itself to in 2021. The declaration emphasizes Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination rights.

Despite the proposed bill still being in the drafting stages, Hajdu expressed her objective clearly: she aims to protect the water used for drinking and ensure sustainable financing for water operations and supply systems.

Critiques of the Liberals’ record with water issues in First Nation communities persist, often citing instances such as the unfulfilled promise to end all boil-water advisories by 2021 as evidence of the government’s shortcomings in reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

Dawn Martin-Hill, a professor at McMaster University and the leader of the Indigenous water research program Ohneganos Ohnegahdę:gyo, critiqued the government’s narrow focus on boil-water advisories. She advocated for an approach that addresses the treatment and accessibility of safe drinking water on reserves on a more comprehensive scale, respecting treaty rights and upholding nation-to-nation commitments.

Referencing the lifting of 143 long-term drinking water advisories since November 2015, Hajdu affirmed her commitment to finalizing the clean drinking water initiative. Notwithstanding the remaining advisories that primarily affect remote locations, she emphasized that over 96% of First Nations now live in communities where access to clean tap water is possible. An unwavering and resolute stance resonates within Hajdu’s parting words, “We will finish this job.”