First Nations gathering in Vancouver want better water legislation, safe drinking water

“Right now we have elders going down to the lake, chopping holes in the ice to bring water to their households. Right now,” the Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday.

Water advocate Autumn Peltier among opening speakers at Assembly of First Nations conference in Vancouver

Perry Bellegarde, Autumn Peltier and Regional Manitoba Chief Kevin Hart at July 2017 Chief Assembly, Regina, Sask. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Peltier )

In a conference room at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, more than 200 people sat around tables with white linen napkins and jugs topped with ice water on Tuesday morning.

Speaking from the podium at the front of the room, Kevin Hart reminded everyone of another reality in his home province of Manitoba.

"Right now, we have elders going down to the lake, chopping holes in the ice to bring water to their households. Right now," the Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations said.  

"So, as you can see, there's a lot of work that we need to do, and my passion is to get results for our people."

Right now we have elders going down to the lake, chopping holes in the ice to bring water to their households. Right now.- Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart

Hart was among the first speakers on Tuesday morning at a three-day symposium hosted by the Assembly of First Nations titled Reconciliation through Sustainable Water Management.

One of the main items on the agenda is reviewing current legislation around safe drinking water in First Nations communities, which the assembly wants to see repealed, and discussing a way forward with the federal government.

Lawyer Allison Thornton was among the many speakers on Tuesday, which included remarks from water advocate Autumn Peltier and a keynote speech from David Suzuki. Thornton spoke at length about the issues she sees with the current legislation, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which was passed by the Harper government in 2013.

"[My perspective here is] to encourage us to walk away and to adopt a different way forward than working within the framework of that deeply flawed legislation," she said.

Among the shortcomings she pointed out were: a failure to address the resource gap, a failure to respect First Nations authority and concerns; and the law's vulnerability to shifts in political commitments from Ottawa.

Looking to build on success

Speaking about commitments from Ottawa, many people highlighted the recent promise from Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott to eliminate all long-term boil water advisories in First Nations by March 2021.

"I want to reiterate ... we have been very clear with the department, we must get this done. We are firm on the commitment that the prime minister has made and we will get the work done," Philpott told reporters at a news conference last month.

Attached to that announcement was an acknowledgement of 91 long-term drinking water advisories in communities throughout Canada. Several people who spoke at the symposium pointed out that those numbers only reflect a fraction of the need for better infrastructure.

Terry Teegee, B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, says the bigger context around safe drinking water is that water affects everything. (GP Mendoza/CBC)

For Terry Teegee, the B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, new legislation should help to address those infrastructure needs. He sees legislation as a way to force the federal government to provide long-term sustainable funding to meet community water needs, instead of short-term, unpredictable financial commitments.

"I think if you have something legislated in law, they're obligated to put funding into that issue every year, right? They have to. And I think that's an important part for legislation, for anything that concerns Indigenous people," he said.

In order to come up with suggestions for the federal government, the symposium has brought together people from communities across Canada: elders, hereditary chiefs, academics, doctors, business owners.

Teegee says he's looking forward to having people share their stories of success, like the work done by Nadleh Whut'en to codify their water laws.  

"Those lessons learned need to be spread across the country," he said.

'We've got a lot of work ahead'

While legislation may be top of mind, so too is reconciliation.

For Teegee, access to safe drinking water is an important part of reconciliation and water, but it's also about a lot more than that.

"If you look in a very holistic way, as many Indigenous people do … water affects everything, right? It's not only safe drinking water in the communities but it's also water on the land so the fish can come back; enough water so you can have the vegetation in your area," he said.

Thirteen-year-old Autumn Peltier from Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island in Ontario also spoke to the bigger picture around water and reconciliation, beyond legislative changes. The young water advocate was invited to speak as part of the opening ceremonies at the symposium.

At only 13 years of age, Autumn Peltier has gained national and international recognition for her advocacy for clean water for Indigenous communities in Canada. (Linda Roy/Irevaphotography)

"So Google says reconciliation means the restoration of friendly relations or the action of making one view or belief compatible with another," she said.

Peltier said she hears adults talking a lot about this word, talking about the relationships between First Nations and Ottawa, about the church, about industry.

"[And] I thought to myself, I have never seen the federal government reconcile with Mother Earth. Not once in my research have I seen a form of government acknowledge Mother Earth and how she sustains all life. Not just human life but everything in existence …. Now there's a relationship I would like to see happen."

"The alliance we need is with the water," she said, to a captive audience who gave her a standing ovation when she finished speaking.

With a packed agenda ahead, Chief Kevin Hart spoke optimistically about the task before them.

"We've got a lot of work ahead to do. We're going to talk about an important issue this week, water. Sacred. One of our most sacred sources of life. Let's all work together and work hard and find some results for our communities … hiy hiy," he said.

The symposium and trade show will wrap up Thursday afternoon.