Alberta First Nations sue Ottawa over safety of drinking water

Four Alberta First Nations are suing the federal government over what they call the deplorable state of their drinking water.

Tsuu T'ina, Ermineskin, Sucker Creek and Blood First Nations involved in lawsuit

Sucker Creek Chief Jim Badger on problems with drinking water on First Nations. 3:15

Four Alberta First Nations are suing the federal government over what they call the deplorable state of their drinking water.

The court action — filed by the Tsuu T'ina, Ermineskin, Sucker Creek and Blood First Nations — asks Federal Court to force Ottawa to upgrade their water systems, provide continuing support to keep them operating safely and to refund money the bands say the government has saved over the years by not doing so.

"We tried to work with the federal government over the past several years and got nowhere," said Chief Jim Badger of the Sucker Creek First Nation.

"We filed this court action today because something must be done. We're asking the courts to order the federal government to develop a plan to ensure that First Nations have safe drinking water, just like everybody else in this country, and to monitor whether that plan is being implemented."

Estimated cost is $1.2B

The most recent estimate of the cost of bringing water treatment on reserves up to federal standards is about $1.2 billion, with another $470 million a year for maintenance.

The lawsuit argues that Ottawa built substandard water treatment facilities on the four reserves and then didn't maintain them.

The results, the claim argues, have encouraged the breakup of First Nations communities, damaged the health of those who live there and slowed economic development. The failure to ensure one of the basic necessities of life is systematic discrimination, the lawsuit alleges.

"Canada has avoided significant expenditures on account of its breaches of fiduciary duty and the obligations imposed by the honour of the Crown," says a statement of claim filed in Vancouver on Monday. "Canada should therefore be required to disgorge the benefits it has received as a result of its misconduct."

"[It] demeans the position of aboriginals relative to their non-aboriginal neighbours and reinforces the impoverished and
disadvantaged position of aboriginal people within Canadian society."

Longtime issue on reserves

Safe drinking water on reserves has been a public issue since before 2003, when a government report found three-quarters of all water systems on reserves were at high or medium risk of failure.

Two years later, the auditor general found higher standards needed to be backed up with sufficient resources. That conclusion was echoed the following year by a panel convened by then aboriginal affairs minister Jim Prentice.

A third study in 2011 found little had changed since 2003.

Badger's reserve isn't the only one where water and sewer lines cross-contaminate.

"A lot of our community members are suffering from stomach infections that are due to unsafe drinking water," said Dorothy Firstrider of the Blood band. "A lot of our infants are constantly being treated for a lot of infections that are due to unhealthy drinking water."

Water on the Ermineskin reserve is often so bad, members have to drive to the nearest town to buy bottled water, said Chief Craig Makinaw. 

Government spent billions on issue

The Harper government has said it's spent about $3 billion since 2006 on aboriginal water systems.

Lawyer Clayton Leonard, who represents the bands, said most of that was spent prior to the 2011 assessment.

"How many times do you get to reannounce the same amount of money? If you spent $2 billion, and then you find that 73 per cent of First Nations still face serious drinking water issues, it's a pretty clear indication it's not enough."

The government legislated tougher standards last fall that made bands responsible for operation of their water treatment facilities. Aboriginal people say it's not fair to give them the responsibility without the resources to back it up.

The claim alleges that the transfer of responsibility for water didn't come with the resources to do the job.

"Canada knew ... that First Nations, including the plaintiff First Nations, did not have the resources or skills required to
maintain and operate their already deficient water systems," the statement says.

"Further, Canada only partially funded the operations of on-reserve water treatment systems and maintenance costs regardless of a First Nation's ability to generate the rest of the funding."

The lawsuit's claims have not been proven in court. The federal government has not yet filed a statement of defence.

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said a Liberal motion calling for urgent action by 2012 was supported by the Conservatives.

“Unfortunately, the only action First Nations got from this government was legislation created without First Nations consultation, which downloaded responsibility and liability onto communities with no resources.”

Read the statement of claim:

With files from CBC News