Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Bill, Second Reading—Debate Continued

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On the Order: Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Brazeau, seconded by the Honourable Senator Lang, for the second reading of Bill S-11, An Act respecting the safety of drinking water on first nation lands.

Hon. Charlie Watt: [Senator Watt spoke in Inuktitut.]

Honourable senators, I thank the government for making clean drinking water for First Nations a priority. We all agree that the right to clean drinking water is important to all Canadians, and we want legislation that addresses this issue.

My concern with Bill S-11 is the impact of clause 4(1)(r) on the rights of Aboriginal peoples in this country. In particular, regulations under this act would abrogate or derogate from our constitutionally protected rights under section 35 of the Charter.

It is my role as an Aboriginal senator to bring these elements to the attention of honourable senators as we study this bill.

The special trust relationship and the responsibility of the government to Aboriginal peoples must be our first consideration in determining whether the legislation can be justified. We must ensure that fair resources are available and that the Aboriginal nations in question are properly consulted at the earliest stage.

This issue of trust is a delicate matter. At the tip of the iceberg, Aboriginal leaders are wondering why this legislation is being introduced. It appears to be about water quality but the wording of it has many in the Aboriginal community questioning whether there is more to this legislation than meets the eye.

Aboriginal leaders have asked me about the justification for this bill. We are concerned by the wording of this particular bill because it takes a position that is very different from the recommendations made by the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in their 2007 report titled: Taking Section 35 Rights Seriously: Non-derogation Clauses relating to Aboriginal and treaty rights.

In this report we are reminded of the scope of section 35 rights, as we are from the Sparrow decision at the Supreme Court of Canada. This report is an excellent overview of the responsibility of the Crown.

I am also concerned because this bill seems to contradict the recommendations in the 2007 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on the subject of safe drinking water in First Nations communities. In this report on the issue of resource allocation, Dr. Harry Swain, Chair of the Expert Panel of Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, said his personal conclusion is that if we want to see the completion of what has been a fairly considerable national effort to get good water on Indian reserves, then we should worry about the basic resources first and about a regulatory regime later.

On the point of consultation, the Supreme Court of Canada has elaborated on the legal requirement for this study to consult. As we consider Bill S-11, it seems that clause 4(1)(r) suggests that the Crown contemplated that the forthcoming regulations might have a negative or adverse affect on Aboriginal rights or titles protected under section 35.

Honourable senators, I am troubled by the precedent we are setting. The way I see it, the government is venturing into provincial jurisdiction and outside of parliamentary scrutiny with this bill. On the issue of section 35 rights, I again refer honourable senators back to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report, which says:

This approach appears to establish a precedent for dealing with non-derogation of Aboriginal and treaty rights as a regulatory matter rather than addressing the issue explicitly in legislation, with obvious implications for Parliamentary scrutiny.

On this note, I would like to state for the record that I have met with Assembly of First Nations representatives and received written correspondence from those who are alarmed by the actions of this government actions which seem to be forcing them into a serious agreement with a yet-unknown third party without adequate consultation.

I remind those who are new to this chamber that Aboriginal peoples have struggled for generations to achieve legitimacy at the negotiating table. We take the issue of consultation and respect seriously.

Although I do not often speak of this, honourable senators, Aboriginal leaders carry a tremendous burden; their communities and their families have paid dearly for our involvement in political life. My involvement in the repatriation of the Constitution is one of the highlights of my career; the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is the other. In both of these proceedings I was honoured to negotiate on behalf of my people, but I did so at great personal expense.

Honourable senators, although those issues may seem old news to some, the embers of those political battles still burn in the hearts of those who negotiated with the government. Some of us have lived through the bitter and violent days of negotiations. We made advancements for our people, at a cost.

Although we have achieved much, it appears that Aboriginal people still have less respect from the government and we still do not enjoy the same equality provided to other Canadians. The fact that this bill contemplates abrogating Aboriginal rights through regulation that will not be scrutinized by Parliament is an embarrassment to Canadians and it is offensive to Native leaders. Once again it seems that government is trying to out-muscle us in a publicly humiliating way.

Honourable senators, as I conclude my remarks, I would suggest that we have many potential problems with the bill in its current form. We are not working from a position of trust, we have not heard any solid justification for this bill in any of the government’s own reports, there is no provision for the resources in this bill and the consultations with the First Nations were weak. I repeat, they were weak.

Honourable senators, it is our duty to ensure that Aboriginal and treaty rights are protected. We must insist on the cooperative framework between the Government of Canada and First Nations because that is the Constitution we live with today. (On motion of Senator Mitchell, debate adjourned.)


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