By The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — The federal government has reached a nearly $8-billion settlement with First Nations who launched a class-action lawsuit over the lack of clean, safe drinking water in their communities.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, alongside chiefs of the First Nations behind the lawsuit, announced Friday that they have reached an agreement in principle to resolve the suit outside of court.
Miller said the agreement includes $1.5 billion in compensation for people deprived of clean drinking water, the creation of a $400 million First Nation economic and cultural restoration fund and at least $6 billion to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves.
The agreement also includes a renewed commitment to Canada’s action plan for lifting all long-term drinking water advisories, support for First Nations to develop their own safe drinking water bylaws and initiatives and planned modernization of First Nations drinking water legislation, he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in 2015 to lift all drinking water advisories by this March, but Miller acknowledged last December that the government would not meet that goal.
Miller said Friday that 108 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since November 2015. Some 51 long-term advisories are still in effect in 32 communities, according to Indigenous Services Canada.
“I could sit here and try and give you all the excuses in the world but there is no credible excuse for countries such as Canada to take this long,” Miller told a news conference.
“That said, our government has made those investments and has worked outside the court process. We were willing to sit down and hammer something out and this is the product of that. We don’t want to be in court because we’re on the same page.”
Miller did not provide a new deadline for when all long-term water advisories would be lifted, saying he wished to respect the self-determination of Indigenous communities and the role they play in the process.
“This is not as simple as Ottawa imposing a deadline on itself and saying, ‘We’re going to do it.’ There’s a partnership here and we need to reflect it,” he said.
The lawsuit was launched by the Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba and the Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario.
It alleged that Canada has breached its obligations to First Nations and their members by failing to ensure that reserve communities have clean water, according to the plaintiffs’ law firms, Olthuis, Kleer, Townshend LLP and McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
The class included all members of First Nations whose communities were subject to a drinking water advisory for a year or longer from November 8, 1995 to the present.
The agreement in principle must still be approved by the court.
The chiefs of the three First Nations spoke Friday about the effects of decades-long boil-water advisories in their communities, becoming emotional as they described seeing children with rashes and having to buy bottled water to bathe babies.
Emily Whetung, chief of the Curve Lake First Nation, said Indigenous children need to grow up on the only land base they have been left with and they deserve to grow up with clean water.
“I’m overwhelmed to stand here today,” she said. “We have made a difference. We have reached an agreement that contains commitments to deliver the quality and quantity of water that most Canadians take for granted.”
Clayton Leonard, a lawyer who has been working on drinking water issues for years on behalf of a number of Alberta First Nations, said in addition to the class action, there are at least five court actions against the federal government on drinking water, including two brought by his clients.
He said he expects the agreement will apply to all First Nations, not just the ones in the class action.
“It’s reasonable that the terms in this agreement in principle would likely be extended to any First Nation that has a drinking water lawsuit. If they don’t do that, they’re just looking for more litigation,” Leonard said.
He also questioned whether $6 billion, paid out at $400 million a year, would be adequate. The Harper government commissioned a report into the cost of fixing the issue in Canada and came up with $10 billion, he said.
There has been growing speculation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on the verge of calling an election and his government’s record on Indigenous reconciliation is expected to be a major issue.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh visited the Neskantaga First Nation earlier this week to press the federal government on why it had failed to ensure the community and others had safe water to drink.
He said Friday that for far too long, Indigenous people have had to fight in court for basic human rights — including access to clean drinking water.
“This is wrong. It should never have come to this,” Singh said in a statement.
Trudeau’s broken promise to lift all long-term advisories by March has meant Indigenous people are paying the price with their health, he said.
“We hope that a binding agreement will be reached soon between all parties, without political interference, out of respect for basic human dignity and for all the work that Indigenous leaders have done to get clean water into their communities.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2021.
— With files from Bob Weber in Edmonton