Heated debate on clean drinking water legislation leads to accusations of stereotyping

The debate on Bill C-61 also called the First Nations Clean Drinking Water Act has been ongoing since Dec. 2023

During a debate in the House of Commons Saskatoon Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said tensions were high in First Nations communities who do not have clean drinking water and remain under a boil water advisory.

“The previous Conservative government left eight and a half years ago and there are still over 100 water advisories on First Nations,” he said.

“In my home province of Saskatchewan, I have seen reserves burn down water treatment plants because the Liberal government has done little or nothing.”

The comments were made during a debate on Bill C-61, also known as the First Nations Clean Water Act, on Monday.

Patty Hajdu, minister of Indigenous Services, took issue with Waugh’s comments MP during the debate on proposed legislation and accused him Waugh of negative “stereotyping.”

“Well the implication that people would burn water treatment plants out of spite, out of anger at the government, out of a sense of wanton destruction – I think came through loud and clear in his comments,” Patty Hajdu said outside the House of Commons on Tuesday.

“I will just say that we see acts of arson in non-Indigenous communities as well. So, there is a stereotype that somehow Indigenous people don’t take care of the equipment or the housing or the community infrastructure and that is a long-standing very harmful and hurtful stereotype.”

Waugh, MP for Saskatoon-Grasswood, later added, “The other thing is that there needs to be education provided for people on reserve to operate these water treatment plants, which is part of the problem we have seen with the government over the last eight and a half years.”

Ending off the heated exchange, Hajdu accused the Conservative MP of using the debate to further historical negative stereotypes of First Nations people.

“Trust a Conservative member to blame First Nations people for burning down their own water treatment plants and for not being smart enough to be able to understand how to operate those plants,” she said

“That is the kind of paternalism that led to 105 long-term boil water advisories. They were just not worth investing in, I guess.”

The Liberals have faced a lot of criticism for failing to deliver on a 2015 commitment to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations by March 2021. Access to clean drinking water remains an issue for many communities.

According to the Indigenous Services Canada website, there were 28 long-term drinking water advisories in place on First Nations as of Jan. 19 of this year and five of these were in Saskatchewan.

Bill C-61 was introduced just before Christmas with a stated intent to protect water sources, create minimum drinking water standards and provide sustainable funding for water quality on First Nations.

The clean drinking water legislation currently sits at second reading in the House of Commons.

Media reports show there were two water treatment plants destroyed by fires on First Nations in Saskatchewan in recent years.

One in Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation in 2019 and the other in Piapot First Nation in 2018. The causes of the fires were undetermined in earlier media reports.

APTN News reached out to Kevin Waugh’s office for clarification on his comments in the House of Commons on Monday but did not hear back until Thursday when his office sent a statement.

He said Waugh was calling out the Liberals for their attempts at fixing water systems on First Nations – but didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of any fires.

“MP Waugh also raised concerns about two incidents on reserves in Saskatchewan, publicly reported in the media, that saw water treatment plants burn down, disrupting clean water access for First Nations families,” the email said. “He is not familiar with the specific circumstances of these incidents and did not intend to make any implication about the cause.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Feb. 8 with a comment from Kevin Waugh’s office.

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