Canada resolves class actions on First Nations drinking water

Agreement provides $1.5 billion in compensation, new $400 million restoration fund

Canada resolves class actions on First Nations drinking water

Marc Miller, federal Indigenous services minister, has announced an Agreement in Principle with Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba, Curve Lake First Nation in southern Ontario and Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario through a negotiation process to resolve national class action suits on safe drinking water in these communities.

“I strongly believe in resolving important matters like this through open dialogue grounded in the principles of co-operation, partnership and transparency,” said Miller in the news release.

The historic agreement provides the following:

  • compensation of $1.5 billion for those deprived of clean drinking water;
  • the establishment of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund and of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water;
  • a revitalized commitment to the federal action plan to lift all long-term drinking water advisories;
  • a funding commitment of at least $6 billion for reliable access to safe drinking water on reserve;
  • support enabling First Nations to develop their own by-laws and initiatives on safe drinking water;
  • a plan to modernize the drinking water legislation of First Nations in Canada.

“This historic agreement recognizes a basic human right to clean drinking water, compensates those who were wrongly deprived of it, and gives First Nations confidence that the future will not resemble the past,” said Michael Rosenberg, partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and counsel to Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation.

The courage of First Nations to seek justice has helped achieve these measures to address the water crisis and the impacts of long-term drinking water advisories, Rosenberg added.

“There is hardly any file more meaningful to me in Canada than these national class actions,” said Harry LaForme, senior counsel at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP who also represents the three First Nations.

LaForme, Canada’s first Indigenous appellate judge, grew up on the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and said that residents could not drink tap water during his youth.

Effective July 30, Canada’s First Nations, supported by Indigenous Services Canada, have had 108 long-term drinking water advisories lifted that were in place since November 2015, and have prevented 186 short-term drinking water advisories from becoming long-term. Canada is working with First Nations communities to build long-term solutions that support sustainable access to safe, clean drinking water and to build trust in the water supply, Indigenous Services Canada said in its news release.

Canada has provided funding seeking to improve and repair water and wastewater infrastructure, to encourage the effective management and maintenance of water systems on reserves and to give First Nations communities more control of infrastructure delivery. These investments include:

  • $605.6 million over four years, beginning in 2020 to 2021, plus an additional $184.9 million every year afterward, under Budget 2019;
  • $616.3 million over six years starting in 2020 to 2021, then $114.1 million each year after that, as part of the 2020 Fall Economic Statement;
  • $4.3 billion over four years for supporting infrastructure projects in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities, plus $1.7 billion over five years, with $388.9 million ongoing, for the operations and maintenance costs of other community infrastructure, pursuant to Budget 2021.

“We can celebrate the Agreement In Principle as a step in the right direction and we look forward to seeing how quickly we can achieve the goal of clean water for all,” said Chief Emily Whetung of Curve Lake First Nation in the news release.

“For Tataskweyak Cree Nation, these standards mean that Canada is finally committing to draw our community's water from a safer and healthier source,” said Chief Doreen Spence of Tataskweyak Cree Nation.

“We view the Agreement In Principle as hope that our water issues will be in the past and that we can move forward with a new beginning,” said the Community of Neskantaga.

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