By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Chiefs representing forty-seven Treaty 6, 7 and 8 First Nations say the federal government’s First Nations Clean Water Act was drafted without their input and that the federal Indigenous Services minister has ignored their requests for a meeting.
The legislation, which was introduced in the House of Commons on Dec. 11 as Bill C-61, was a condition of an $8-billion class action settlement the feds reached in 2021 with First Nations across Canada whose members suffered from lack of access to clean drinking water for at least a year since November 1995.
The Chiefs Steering Committee on Technical Services, which provides technical support on water, wastewater and related infrastructure for First Nations in Alberta, says the legislation as it stands does little more than offload responsibility onto First Nations without providing appropriate funding for them to do so.
Tallcree First Nation Chief Rupert Meneen, who represents Treaty 8 on the committee, called Bill C-61 “dump-and-run legislation.”
“Canada is … basically dumping everything on us to take care of with very little funding,” he told Alberta Native News.
Norma Tall, the steering committee’s policy and legal advisor, says that by the Canadian government’s own admission, it has underfunded First Nations’ water, wastewater and other related infrastructure compared with the rest of Canada.
“Nobody ever addresses the reality of it,” Tall said in an interview.
Bill C-61 envisions the creation of a First Nations Water Commission to enforce national drinking water and wastewater standards.
“Taking that on means you’re also taking on the risks with outdated infrastructure and without access to water,” Tall explained.
“The water isn’t stagnant in any individual reserve. In fact, it flows from the rivers, from the watersheds, from the lakes.”
Chief Meneen says Treaty 6, 7 and 8 chiefs have requested meetings with Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu “to bring our concerns to the table and make Canada understand that there’s more to this than what you guys are putting on paper,” but were ignored.
“Our source waters are drying up, with climate change and everything else that’s happening in this country,” Meneen added.
“If you come to my community, I will show you this little tiny creek we draw our water from every spring when it’s running full. But during the summer, it’s empty, there’s nothing flowing.”
While the legislation pledges “to make best efforts to adequate and sustainable funding for water services on First Nation lands comparable to services received in non-First Nations communities,” it does not specify what level of funding this entails.
Downloading responsibility onto First Nations violates the spirit of Treaty 8, Tall said, with its promise to uphold a collaborative relationship with the Crown “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the Waters Flow.”
Chief Meneen says the entire extent of the feds’ consultation with Treaty 8 chiefs was a single 45-minute Zoom meeting.
“You can’t call that consultation,” he said. “Forty-five minutes doesn’t give you enough time to really voice the concerns that you have with this legislation.”
This level of consultation is nowhere near the standard of “free, prior and informed consent” outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Canadian government has endorsed, Tall added.
The feds say they worked closely with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on the bill and have held consultations with First Nations since 2018, but refuse to release a list of the nations it consulted.
Meneen and Tall say the AFN isn’t the appropriate entity for negotiating legislation impacting Treaty rights, because the AFN hasn’t signed any Treaties itself.
“You can’t speak for me, because I’d rather come at something from a Treaty perspective, rather than where you guys are coming from,” said Meneen.
The AFN’s purpose is “to open doors for the rights holders, and the chiefs are the only ones who represent the rights holders,” Tall explained, adding that the AFN is being used to “manufacture consent” for the federal government’s agenda.
Chiefs in Alberta aren’t the only First Nations leaders expressing concerns with Bill C-61.
Chief Chris Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation, a remote community in northern Ontario, has had a drinking water advisory for 28 years — the longest in Canada.
He told CBC News that he wanted the government to send an official to his community to interview its 300 members, some of whom have lived their entire lives without access to clean drinking water.
“They just do whatever they want,” Moonias said. “That’s colonialism at its best.”