By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on December 19, 2023.
A Bill introduced in Parliament on Dec. 11 has Treaty Chiefs in Alberta concerned about the fate of clean water access on reservations.
Bill C-61, the First Nations Clean Water Act, comes in response to the Clean Drinking Water Class Action Settlement Agreement of Dec. 2021 that called upon Canada to tackle the ongoing issue of long-term drinking water advisories that predominantly impact those living on reserves.
The settlement, agreed upon in July 2021, included approximately $8 billion and commitments such as the requirement that Canada modernize legislation, including the ‘Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act.’
Claims by the federal government state that new legislation has been developed in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), however Treaty First Nations in Alberta do not recognize the AFN as representing them and say the lack of direct consultation has left Alberta without input on the matter and development of Bill C-61.
In a release from the Chiefs Steering Committee, the organization says “the Chiefs Steering Committee on Technical Services has led the fight for Indigenous water rights in Treaty 6, 7, and 8 territories for the past year. In September 2023, the Chiefs received unanimous support from the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs in Alberta, representing 47 Treaty First Nations, by resolution, recognizing the threat to their Treaty and inherent rights. Canada has failed to respond or engage.”
The release states that attempts made by the committee to meet with Indigenous Services Minister, Patty Hajdu have been ignored.
Three main concerns with Bill C-61 have been presented:
First being that the Government of Canada is offloading its responsibilities to provide clean drinking water to First Nation governments while failing to provide clear funding, timelines, or implementation plans. The release states the proposal also lacks assurance of tangible improvements to resources and infrastructure.
The second concern regards the lack of consultation with Treaty Six, Seven, and Eight nations. By only working with AFN, the Chiefs Steering Committee claims “Canada is presenting a manufactured co-development, not a true one.”
Finally, the Treaty Chiefs feel the bill is “unworkable” and “inoperable” as the Source Water protection zones proposed can only exist with multi-government collaboration, which they fear the Government of Alberta under the leadership of Danielle Smith will not cooperate with given their recent declarations of provincial sovereignty.
Chief Troy Knowlton of Piikani Nation in Treaty 7 territory said, “our Knowledge Keepers tell us always that water is life – ours and all other peoples. If we do not take a stand now to assist us in our efforts, this Bill will be just another federal manoeuvre to offload their legal obligations, including outstanding risks and liabilities from years of federal neglect. It will instead codify and limit our jurisdiction and undermine our capacities to address the real water and infrastructure needs in our Nations and on all our lands.”