First Nations drinking water settlement open for claims from communities, individuals
$8-billion settlement follows class-action lawsuits over unsafe drinking water
After a years-long fight for clean drinking water, Indigenous communities and individuals in Canada are a step closer to receiving money from a class-action lawsuit that was settled with the federal government for $8 billion last year.
The claims process under the settlement opened up to submissions on Monday. Indigenous communities now have until Dec. 22 to file their claims, while individuals have until March 7, 2023.
The legal fight began in 2019, when two separate lawsuits were filed against the federal government — one by Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation, both from Ontario, in the Federal Court of Canada, and the second by Tataskweyak Cree Nation in the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench — concerning prolonged drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves across the country.
The plaintiffs sought compensation for those who suffered from a lack of reliable access to clean water and a declaration that the federal government must work with First Nations to provide access to clean water.
Last July, Ottawa reached a settlement with the First Nations, and on Dec. 22, the agreement was approved by the courts.
Harry LaForme, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said it's troubling to know that roughly 250 First Nations in Canada have struggled with water issues. About 142,000 individuals from 258 First Nations could be compensated, along with 120 First Nations, but more people could end up being eligible for compensation.
"We're talking about an issue that most Canadians take for granted. Most non-Indigenous people do not have to deal with lack of access to clean drinking water," said LaForme, an Anishinaabe from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and a former Ontario Court of Appeal justice.
"Indigenous communities have had to suffer from these problems for decades and decades."
The $8-billion settlement includes $1.5 billion in compensation for individuals deprived of clean drinking water; $6 billion to upgrade water infrastructure to help settle ongoing water issues; and the creation of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.
LaForme said the money will go a long way toward fixing the chronic issues but can never quite repair the harm done to communities.
"You're never going to hit a number that is going to be satisfactory for all the pain that this caused for the people that lived under these things," he said.
LaForme said he heard from his clients that people have moved from their home communities because of the lack of clean drinking water, while some people have developed rashes from bathing in their communities' water.
He said a dispute resolution clause in the settlement gives Indigenous communities authority over the repairs to their water systems.
"The federal government has to consider Indigenous laws and legal structures when it makes its decision," LaForme said.
Eligible communities are entitled to $500,000 for agreeing to the settlement, without detailing the ways the community was harmed.
Natoaganeg First Nation, located 135 kilometres north of Moncton, N.B., is one community that signed on. Chief George Ginnish could not be reached for comment but said in a Facebook post that his community joined the class action in June 2021.
"We will be working with our legal counsel and water technicians to review the settlement offer and conditions therein to compile the information necessary to assist members to apply for individual compensation," Ginnish wrote in his post, adding that clean drinking water is a human right.
A website has been set up to assist people who want to file a claim under the drinking water settlement. A hotline is also available for those needing assistance.