Hajdu tables Liberal government's long-anticipated First Nations water bill

Long-awaited bill tabled

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu tabled much-anticipated legislation to improve water quality in First Nations communities.

The bill introduced on Monday afternoon applies to First Nations on First Nations land, covering source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure.

It would create water protection zones where First Nations, provinces and territories can come together to protect water and source water.

And if passed, the bill would also codify a new First Nations-led water commission.

Hajdu, wearing a light blue sweater and blue ribbon skirt, said the bill reflects an immense amount of work, collaboration and knowledge-sharing from First Nations partners.

"First Nations made it clear they must have the tools and powers to protect their inherent right to clean water," she told reporters outside the House of Commons.

"And this bill today is the first on a new path of lawmaking together."

Hajdu had previously said the legislation she was working on was the closest the federal government had come to co-developing law with First Nations, though some chiefs have been disputing that assertion — especially those in Alberta.

The bill comes more than a year after the federal government repealed legislation on drinking water for First Nations dating back to Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

Harper's government said at the time that the 2013 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act aimed to support the development of federal regulations that would improve First Nations' access to clean drinking water and the effective treatment of wastewater.

But many First Nations said the legislation was ineffective and dangerous, citing concerns about a lack of sustainable funding and the infringement of constitutional rights.

In December 2021, the Federal Court and the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba decided to approve the settlement of an $8-billion class-action lawsuit.

The settlement aimed to provide $1.5-billion in compensation to any First Nations and their members who were subject to drinking water advisories lasting at least one year, between November 1995 and June 2021.

It also dedicated $400 million to create a First Nations Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund, allocaed at least $6 billion to help support access to drinking water in First Nations communities and promised the new legislation ultimately tabled on Monday.

NDP MP Lori Idlout, who serves as her party's Crown-Indigenous relations critic, said she is "cautiously optimistic" about the legislation tabled Monday.

"But I'll be reviewing it with a fine-tooth comb."

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