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First Nations water problems won't be solved by charity, expert says

Government policy is needed more than charity to solve the long-standing problems with drinking water in First Nations, says lawyer Julie Abouchar.

Government policy at the root of long-standing drinking water problems, lawyer Julie Abouchar says

'Small and Aboriginal Communities: Solutions that fit' is one of themes of a Canadian Water Network conference taking place in Toronto, beginning March 10. (sl_photo/Shutterstock)
More than 10 First Nations in the northwest have gone more than 10 years without safe drinking water. Can charities and non-profit groups provide the solution? It's one of the issues being discussed at a conference on water in Ottawa this week 8:17
Governments, not charities, need to provide long-term solutions to the problem of unsafe drinking water in First Nations, says lawyer Julie Abouchar.

Abouchar, who served as assistant commission counsel at the Walkerton Inquiry, is one of the speakers tackling the issue of unsafe water in First Nations at the Canadian Water Network's conference beginning Tuesday in Ottawa. 

Charitable donations recently helped fund running water systems for 20 homes in Pikangikum First Nation, a fly-in First Nation in northwestern Ontario. A non-profit group has approached Neskantaga First Nation, also in Ontario's remote north, to offer water aid there. 

Lawyer Julie Abouchar says government policy changes are needed to resolve problems with safe drinking water in First Nations communities. (Canadian Water Network)
"Any effort made to improve the situation is positive," Abouchar said of the charitable work. "I worry that those solutions may not be long-term solutions."

The first step toward those long-term solutions is a conversation between policy makers in Ottawa and individual First Nations about what would work best in their communities.

Nearly half of the 133 First Nations in Ontario currently have boil water advisories, and it has been more than ten years since ten First Nations in northwestern Ontario had safe drinking water.

In 2013, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act provided a legislative framework to ensure drinking water on reserves met the same standards as those in the rest of Canada, but there are still no regulations under the act, Abouchar said.

"I think it's time to take a pause and hear what First Nations want," she said.

The desire by charitable groups to solve basic human rights issues is understandable, Abouchar said, "but without changing the underlying policies and approaches, you probably shouldn't expect a different outcome."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story stated the conference will be held in Toronto. It will be held in Ottawa.
    Mar 09, 2015 9:07 AM ET