TORONTO — Ontario will push for a national agreement at this week’s First Ministers’ meeting in Vancouver to ensure First Nations communities have safe, clean drinking water, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Tuesday.
There are more than 150 boil water advisories or do not consume advisories in about 112 First Nations communities across Canada, some more than 15 years old.
“It’s unacceptable to me that we have boil water orders in First Nations communities in Ontario, and that is the case across the country,” said Wynne.
“If we don’t find a way for the federal government, the provincial government and indigenous leadership to work together better on something as fundamental as provision of clean water, then I think that we should be very ashamed of ourselves.”
First Nations’ leaders from northern Ontario declared a public-health emergency last week, asking for a detailed intervention plan to ensure communities have access to safe, clean drinking water. A dire shortage of basic medical supplies and an epidemic of suicides among young people were other reasons for issuing their plea for help.
Wynne said she’ll raise the drinking water issue when she meets Wednesday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, provincial and territorial premiers and First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders in Vancouver.
Indigenous leaders will be consulted for their input on Canada’s approach to climate change, but Wynne said she knows they have other pressing issues to deal with.
“Climate change is an immediate issue, but there are other immediate issues that I know there will be a conversation about, things like clean water and how do we work together to make sure that we have a strategy for providing clean water across all of the country,” she said. “That’s one of the issues that I’ll certainly be pushing.”
David Zimmer, Ontario’s minister of aboriginal affairs, said the previous federal government virtually refused to work with the province on First Nations issues, and only agreed last year to co-operate with Ontario on drinking water for reserves.
“The new federal government has a renewed interest in this,” said Zimmer. “It’s inexcusable that some of these boil water advisories have been there 10 year or 15 years. There’s even one that’s almost 20 years old.”
Zimmer called it “crazy” to have to fly in large bottles of water for remote First Nations communities that used to be able to literally drink untreated water from nearby lakes and rivers, especially when Ontario has over 20 per cent of the world’s supply of fresh water.
New water treatment technology that’s easier to use may be a key in resolving the long-standing problem with safe drinking water, added Zimmer.
“The federal government put in water treatment plants 15 or 20 years ago, but it was a complicated technology, difficult to operate and need a couple of people,” he said.
“We’re hoping to implement that newer technology, which is more reliable and simpler to operate and in terms of training people to operate it.”
Ontario’s opposition Progressive Conservatives said the province’s Liberal government has been in power for 13 years, and there have been boil water advisories in First Nations communities for every one of those years.