Approval of $8B settlement in First Nations' drinking water class action a 'historic moment': Manitoba chief

Courts have approved an $8-billion federal agreement in what one chief called a "historic moment" for First Nations in Canada, settling two national class action lawsuits launched by First Nations living under drinking water advisories.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence 'extremely pleased'

Sol Mamakwa, a member of Ontario's provincial Parliament, holds up water collected from Neskantaga First Nation during a July 2021 rally at Queen's Park in Toronto. Neskantaga First Nation and Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario, along with Tataskewyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, led a class-action lawsuit against the federal government over long-term drinking water advisories. (Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press)

Thousands of people who have been affected by years-long drinking water advisories could see compensation, after courts approved an $8-billion class-action settlement in what one chief called a "historic moment" for First Nations in Canada.

Canada's Federal Court and Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench issued a joint decision Wednesday approving the settlement in two national class-action lawsuits launched against the federal government by First Nations living under drinking water advisories.

The settlement in the two class-action suits was first agreed upon in July. The class included any member of a band whose land was subject to a water advisory that lasted at least one year, at any point from Nov. 8, 1995, until the present.

In addition to compensation, the suits also sought to force the government to immediately construct, or approve and fund the construction of, appropriate water systems for the class members.

The agreement approved Wednesday will offer compensation to individuals deprived of clean drinking water and modernize Canada's First Nations drinking water legislation.

Doreen Spence, chief of Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, said she is "extremely pleased" with the courts' decision to approve the settlement agreement.

"This is a historic moment for Tataskweyak Cree Nation and First Nations across the country. First Nations will now be able to work with Canada in a more meaningful way, and have access to water standards on reserve that have never existed before," Spence said in an emailed statement to CBC

"We look forward to seeing the day where all First Nations have access to safe water, now and forever."

Tataskweyak Cree Nation, which has been under a drinking water advisory since 2017, and two Ontario communities — Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation — led the class-action lawsuits, which could see approximately 142,000 individuals from 258 First Nations compensated, along with 120 First Nations. 

Michael Rosenberg, a lawyer from McCarthy Tétrault LLP, was lead counsel for the three plaintiffs.

The settlement in the case, which he started working on in 2019, is "a game-changer" for First Nations communities that have been affected by long-term drinking water advisories, he said.

"On the one hand, it will provide compensation so that they can begin to heal from harms that they should never have had to suffer. On the other hand … it provides a path forward and hope for the future and infrastructure commitments to ensure that they will not continue to be plagued by long-term drinking water advisories," Rosenberg said.

"They will ... have access to safe drinking water that so many Canadians take for granted."

In addition to an infrastructure commitment of at least $6 billion to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves, the settlement agreement includes $1.5 billion in compensation to individuals deprived of clean drinking water, the creation of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund and the creation of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water.

Emily Whetung, chief of Ontario's Curve Lake First Nation, says Wednesday's decision is 'monumental.' (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Curve Lake First Nation Chief Emily Whetung hasn't known clean drinking water — that didn't have to be boiled — for most of her lifetime. 

Wednesday's decision is "monumental" and "is going to change so many things," she said.

"It gives the agreement a legal enforceability that First Nations have never had in the conversation about access to clean drinking water," Whetung said.

"It didn't feel like a reality until I had the decision in my hand and could say, 'Look. This is going to be something that's going to be enforceable. This is going to be something that's going to actually meaningfully change access to clean drinking water for First Nations across Canada."

Rosenberg said the current water advisories will be lifted as soon as possible.

"Some should be lifted in the coming weeks, months, and the hope is that ultimately we close the infrastructure gap in these First Nations communities so that we don't come back to a situation like we see presently and have seen," he said.

There is a 60-day appeals period, but following that the next step will be the implementation of the settlement.

Rosenberg said each First Nation in the settlement will have to decide as a community whether or not they wish to participate in the settlement, agree to it and accept its terms.

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian