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Senator Grafstein addresses representatives of Aboriginal community in Committee of the Whole

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Statement made on 11 June 2009 by Senator Jerahmiel Grafstein (retired)

Senator Grafstein:

Chiefs, welcome. I want to continue the conversation that I have had with Chief Fontaine for lo, these many years that he addressed early in his presentation dealing with water for Aboriginal communities. The statistics are still alarming. You indicated there are at least 109 boil water advisories and 40 high-risk communities. We heard an estimation on June 4 from Mr. Strahl of somewhere between 95 and 100 high-risk communities. My estimate is that at least another third are medium-risk, and we have recent information, I am sure you are familiar with it, that to go from medium-risk to high-risk is not far. The situation, based on what we have gathered recently, although progress has been made, is not happy.

Do you have any medical statistics to indicate the consequences of bad drinking water on Aboriginal reserves across the country?

Mr. Fontaine: We do not have scientific evidence, if this is what your question is about. We have anecdotal information, but I recognize that evidence is not good enough. What you are exposing here, senator, with your question, is that we have poor data; poor statistical information on so many of these issues.

For example, we cannot get our numbers straight on housing. The Auditor General cites one number; the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has another number; and we have another number. That situation is true also in education. We say that there is a waiting list of 15,000 students eligible to go to university. We do not know if that number is absolutely certain. It is the same thing with the issue of boil water advisories.

One thing is missing, and I would like to request the Senate to provide this missing piece: Call for a complete and comprehensive overview of the situation of First Nations on all these issues and sectors, whether we are talking about housing, water, education, schools, the state of schools and children in care. We say 27,000; talk to the government and they will say only 9,000. It is difficult to make fair and appropriate management decisions when we do not have the data and the statistics. I am absolutely certain that the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs would welcome this call.

I have given you a long answer. I have not given you an answer actually, other than to say that I do not have the statistics; but we know the consequences because many of our people end up in hospital care. Many of them — we are talking about people in remote parts of the country — have to be flown to urban centres. We are witness to that right now at Garden Hill in St. Theresa Point in Northeastern Manitoba.

Senator Grafstein: I raise that point because we had a discussion about statistics in committee this morning. I agree with you that there is a dearth of statistics kept by various departments responsible for public health, which is part of the problem.

Can you give us an anecdotal assessment of what you consider to be the stage of enhancement with respect to clean drinking water across the Aboriginal communities? I know progress has been made, but, again, one step backward, one step forward, and sometimes two steps backward. That is my take, but I would appreciate hearing from you as we heard from Mary Simon last week.

Mr. Fontaine: Senator, I would be completely unfair to suggest that we have not achieved some success. There have been some improvements in the situation. However, we are dealing with a desperate situation. We are dealing with communities that have to operate with boil water advisories because they do not have access to safe drinking water — clean water. That is the case with St. Theresa Point today, and it is mind-boggling that we have this situation in Canada in 2009.

Many reasons have been cited by different authorities as to why we have this situation. Some argue there is lack of regulatory regime. Others argue there is not enough money; others argue we do not have enough trained people, and the reasons for this situation are many.

The fact is, we lack money. It is true we need a regulatory regime that is controlled by First Nation governments. We need trained personnel, and after we have trained our people, we need the money to keep them in our communities. Recently, after the last crisis, many of our people were trained; but then when they were trained, their communities could not afford to keep them so they were hired by municipal governments and other urban centres.

As I said, there are a number of reasons for this situation, but clearly the situation we have is completely unacceptable.

Part of the difficulty with this is that we never polluted these waters. We did not contaminate our river systems and lakes. Yet, we are being forced to pay the consequences. Whenever a situation comes up such as we have now, we are blamed for it. The victim is being blamed. It is completely unfair and unreasonable.

Mr. Daniels: I would like to comment briefly regarding the water issue. When we talk about water, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Walkerton tragedy. Here in Ontario we have a Clean Water Act, but waste management corporations are exempt from this act. When these companies and corporations dump sewage and garbage over underground clean water systems, they are polluting not just Aboriginal peoples' lands and territories but your own territories as well.

That is a concern for me as a leader, because we see it now happening just outside of Barrie at Dump Site 41. I think senators should be standing up assisting those poor Anishinabe women and the farmers who are taking a stand to protect the clean water that is going through their lands and territories. All human beings must come together to remedy the fact that we are polluting our water systems across this country.

Another water issue that comes to my mind is in Watson Lake in Southern Yukon, where water problems are causing Aboriginal peoples to get very sick. That is a concern to me as well. It is as a result of dumping waste and military hardware and all kinds of other garbage that is going into the water systems.

We need to clean up our act as Canadians and as Aboriginal peoples. We have to put a stop to what is going on.


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