Surrey/North Delta Leader

Reserve drinking water costs worry cities

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew and Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin sit on Metro Vancouver
Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew and Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin sit on Metro Vancouver's aboriginal relations committee.
— image credit: File

Idle No More protesters aren't the only group opposing federal reforms to how First Nations operate.

Metro Vancouver politicians will send a delegation to Ottawa because they fear new legislation will saddle local cities with higher costs to provide water and sewer services to Indian reserves.

At issue is Bill S-8, the federal government's proposed Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act.

The legislation would mandate billions of dollars in upgrades to improve water quality and sewage treatment for reserves, where provincial water standards don't apply and many aboriginal families are on substandard systems.

Metro has written to federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, various MPs and other politicians arguing the bill has "significant implications" for local government.

In a recent discussion paper, Metro warns local cities could be obliged to provide water and sewer to reserves with no assurance the bands would pay for the services.

"We're not going to deny anybody's right to clean, safe drinking water," said Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin, who chairs Metro's aboriginal relations committee.

"What we would like is to be consulted. Are we going to be legislated or mandated or forced to provide servicing to First Nations?"

Metro also has concerns about taking on environmental and public health liabilities, as well as the fact it would have no power to enforce bylaws on reserves requiring water system hookups or compliance with conservation rules.

There's no date yet set for the delegation to Ottawa but Daykin met with federal officials Jan. 8.

He was assured the bill is intended as a framework that must fit the entire country, and specific regulations to follow will take municipal concerns into account.

Daykin still expects Metro to send the delegation before the House of Commons votes on the Senate-initiated bill.

A federal assessment in 2009 found three-quarters of B.C.'s more than 200 bands had high-risk water or sewer systems.

And such problems are not just limited to remote rural reserves.

Despite being on the border of both Surrey and White Rock, the Semiahmoo First Nation receives water from neither – band members are on a permanent boil water advisory and some of their aging septic fields are failing.

Meanwhile, Daykin notes the Kwantlen First Nation wants to hook up to water from both the City of Maple Ridge and Langley Township to serve a band-proposed development east of downtown Maple Ridge.

"We've got investments in water lines, pumps, chlorination stations, we've got people testing water," Daykin said. "It's not as simple as hooking up a pipe to a new pipe and turning the tap on."

Some Metro directors are uncomfortable they might be accused of opposing water upgrades for First Nations.

But Daykin said most agree they must pursue a fair deal on behalf of civic taxpayers.

Metro has raised concerns before over federal reforms that make it easier for bands to build condo towers or shopping centres on reserve and start collecting revenue from their largely untapped lands.

In those cases as well the concern is reimbursement of the cost of municipal services the new developments would use.

Cities want to strike comprehensive servicing agreements where bands agree to pay their share of not just water and sewer, but services like firefighting, libraries, swimming pools and parks.

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, who also sits on the aboriginal relations committee, called bill S-8's goal of improving reserve drinking water a "noble objective" but said Metro and local cities must protect themselves.

"Municipalities are more than happy to enter into servicing agreements with First Nations, but it's got to be on a full cost-recovery basis – a level playing field," Drew said. "Municipalities do not want their taxpayers to end up subsidizing services to First Nation communities."

The legislation applies to reserve lands, but treaty First Nations can opt in – meaning it could also apply on Tsawwassen First Nation land or other bands that sign future treaties, such as the Katzie or Tsleil Waututh.

Some First Nations are also critical of the drinking water legislation, arguing it oversteps their aboriginal or treaty rights over their land.

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