Department of Health Act

Mr. Speaker, it is my honour to rise today in debate on this private member’s bill, Bill C-326, an act to amend the Department of Health Act. As some of my colleagues have been saying in debate so far on this subject, it is about proposing water quality guidelines for Canada.

As some members have mentioned, this presents a number of challenges because of dual or triple roles of jurisdiction involving water. I am going to talk a bit about why I think it is important, particularly as an Ontario MP who has followed water issues for many years and the challenges faced in Ontario. Then I am going to put forward some thoughts on some of the struggles that Canada is having, particularly with respect to indigenous peoples and access to water. That is something I have been talking about for several years as a member of Parliament.

This bill, in particular, would create guidelines that strive to be the best in the world. For the member to come up with guidelines that he feels are the strongest in the world, he is going to look to all of the member countries of the OECD. This bill would empower an analysis of best practices from those OECD members. The goal, then, is to have a regular review so that the Minister of Health and the federal government can produce guidelines that, by the standards of the OECD, are best practices around the world to ensure there is safety within our municipal water systems.

What is key here is that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over municipal water systems. It does have jurisdiction over first nation reserves and treaty arrangements around the country. Therefore, the federal government does have particular responsibility that it has not been living up to, both parties, going back decades, so that should be kept in mind.

A lot of Canadians take the safety of their water supply a little for granted. As a southern Ontario MP, we live on the shoulders of the Great Lakes, the largest single freshwater supply in the world. Canadians often do not see the true cost of getting that safe water to their taps. There are municipal systems, artesian wells, a whole range. This bill seeks to develop guidelines to try to get municipal levels of government and provinces, which can regulate directly, up to world standard.

We support that on this side. We think it is one of these interesting areas in which the federal government can use its unique role to try to promote best practices, standards, knowing full well it does not have direct jurisdiction for most homes. These standards would then be something that municipal townships, regional municipalities, and cities could benchmark their own performance on. If we follow some of the legislation that has been in some of our provincial legislatures in the last 10 years with respect to water quality, we will find that many have been pushing for more detailed explanation and direct cost recovery by consumers of the cost of getting them that water.

For many generations, we have taken it for granted that water is free. It is not free. The standards and quality assurance needed have a cost. That cost, for many years, in many municipalities, was absorbed into a general tax base assessment to property owners and businesses. However, more and more municipalities, including throughout the Durham region, which I represent, and I know in many other parts of this country, are now starting to itemize what those costs are for water, and in some cases sewer services for Canadians, so they can see that despite our abundance of water, there is a cost to quality assurance. The goal that the member has is to then make sure that all levels of government have an aspirational goal of making sure the country that is most blessed with fresh water also adheres to the highest standards, through comparison on a regular basis to the OECD. I support that aim and the member’s work.

As an Ontario MP, I remember the Walkerton inquiry. I watched it closely as a young law student and lawyer to see what could happen when simple processes break down. In Walkerton, Ontario, in the year 2000, seven people died as a result of E. coli contamination of a rural water source.

Twenty-three hundred people fell ill as a result of the Walkerton crisis. That made national and international headlines because we do not normally see an outbreak like that from a municipal water source. Justice Dennis O’Connor, one of the most respected jurists in Ontario, was tasked with heading an inquiry into how that happened. The cause of the E. coli contamination was manure from one of the farm fields in the area getting into the water table and the system, and then chlorine levels and E. coli tests not being applied on a daily basis.

That inquiry showed quite simply how a standard community could have a water system that was taken for granted for years but suddenly becomes derailed and causes deaths. Mr. O’Connor’s recommendation, among many others he made, was for more training. The brothers in that case who had run the Walkerton system for many years had little to no training. There was no chlorine testing done daily and there was no positive requirement on this small municipal township to publish to the province the E. coli levels when there was a warning or a bad indication. A positive reporting requirement in Ontario came into place as a result of that.

One of the other findings was that the warnings were not sufficient. Even early, when there was some indication that the water system was the cause of the E. coli sicknesses and death, there was not wide enough public education and warnings to people and so they continued using the water system.

I would invite the member and other members interested in the subject to consult the O’Connor inquiry report, because around the same time, North Battleford, Saskatchewan had a similar E. coli contamination of its water source and 5,800 people fell ill there.

The federal government can provide that aspirational guideline for municipal and provincial partners. Where is our jurisdiction with respect to water? It is with our first nations, and all parliaments in my lifetime have been failing on this front. My friend, the deputy House leader, said that we can do better. We can collectively do better on this front.

The Prime Minister outlined yesterday the challenges facing indigenous peoples in Canada, and there are many. What I would like to see with respect to water is a much more robust plan, because between 120 and 140 first nation communities at any one time have a boil water advisory of some type. Some, like the Neskantaga First Nation near Kenora in my province have had these advisories for years, in this case for 23 years.

There are some unique problems in this and the old ways of doing things are not going to solve them. I had the good fortune of putting out some ideas on this in the last year as a result of consultations with some young, dynamic first nation leaders. I appreciated their advice.

With the private sector, we need to unleash the potential of Canada to solve the problem, not wait for one or two ministers or this party or that party. We should be using crown agencies like Sustainable Development Technology Canada to empower innovative companies to come up with solutions. I sailed on a naval ship that was able to clean and provide drinking water in a confined space for about 300 people. Why do we not adapt these technologies for first nation and remote community use?

I also asked why we are not using Infrastructure Canada and P3 Canada to come up with P3 projects to tackle these more than 100 different projects. They will be different, but some of the same needs will be there. We should empower that approach and allow some of our large international contractors, defence contractors, security contractors to get industrial regional benefit credits for their investments in infrastructure.

This is an area where all parties can work together to acknowledge that we are not doing enough. I admire the Prime Minister‘s ambition, but so far, I have not seen tangible ideas to solve the problem.

What I would like to do is make sure we support this bill to provide guidelines but work together to make sure that first nations have an effective plan for safe drinking water in the future.

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