The federal budget is expected to start a series of cuts to critical public services as well as public service jobs. Here’s what to look for in some water-related areas.

Drinking water for First Nation communities

This is a particularly important year for funding for drinking water in First Nation communities in the federal budget for two reasons. First, the federal government recently introduced Bill S-8 An Act respecting the safety of drinking water on First Nations lands (formerly Bill S-11) which, while creating a framework in which high standards can be set, fails to commit any funding to improve drinking water standards. There are some changes such as the removal of a clause requiring first nations to enter into third party agreements and recognition of the need to protect sources of drinking water from contamination. While we applaud the aim of the bill – improving the safety of drinking water in First Nation communities – the bill still has significant weaknesses. Similar to its predecessor, Bill S-8 appears to set up a framework that would download federal responsibility for drinking water on First Nation reserves onto “provinces, corporations or other bodies.” Despite claims by the government, some First Nations argue that they were not adequately consulted with this iteration. There is nothing in the Bill that would require the federal government to consult with First Nations in the development of related regulations. Finally, the lack of funding commitments and roles in Bill S-8 could force First Nations to privatize and lose control of their water systems. To read more about our concerns about Bill S-11, click here

This year is also the year that funding for the First Nation Water and Wastewater Action plan runs out. In the 2010 Budget, $330 million was allocated over two years for the First Nation Water and Wastewater Action plan (FNWWAP). The five key areas under the FNWWAP are: Infrastructure investments; Operations and maintenance; Training; Monitoring and awareness; and Standards, which means First Nations have to fund all of these five areas with a meagre $165 million this year. To compare, this would be the cost of approximately two of the F-35 fighter jets that the Harper government is considering purchasing. In order to achieve the aim of Bill S-8 effectively, the federal government must commit adequate funding to water and wastewater in First Nation communities.

The federal government has a legal obligation to uphold the human right to water and sanitation in Canada. The Alternative Federal Budget (AFB) calls on the federal government to commit $1.6 billion (with $1.25 billion in the next four years) to improve drinking water conditions on 73 per cent of First Nations communities with water systems at risk, as called for by the Assembly of First Nations.’

Great Lakes protection

The Great Lakes is a commons, meaning that no one owns the Lakes but rather they are a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species as well as current and future generations. To Maude Barlow’s report Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever, click here.

The Great Lakes are under threat from a multiplicity of threats and have been chronically underfunded. In the AFB, we call for $500 million to be invested in the Great Lakes towards cleaning up areas of concern and priority zones, invasive species, calculation of water in the Great Lakes and total water withdrawals, wetlands protection, and an inventory on pollutants that are not covered by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

We called for the $500 million in order to match President Obama’s original funding commitments to the Great Lakes. Obama had pledged $5 billion over 10 years – $500 million per year – during his campaigning in 2008. Congress approved $475 million per year at the end of 2009. However, commitments have been reduced to $300 million in the last two years.

The Canadian government allocated a mere $16 million over two years in the 2010 budget for the Great Lakes Action Plan. In 2011, they only added $5 million for the Great Lakes Action Plan, part of the government’s Action Plan for Clean Water, for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.  Environment Canada recently highlighted that they invested $3 million in the last fiscal year. However, we didn’t think this was adequate.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has stated that pollution on beaches on Lake Ontario are worse in Canada than in the United States. The 2011 Annual Report by the Environmental Commissioner of Canada noted that the Great Lakes are chronically underfunded.

Therefore, if the federal government really wants to protect “water quality and ecosystem health in the Great Lakes” so that Canadians can “continue to depend on this rich ecosystem for their drinking water, for recreation and for jobs,” it would do well to at least match funding commitments of the US government.

Water and wastewater infrastructure

Last year, there was no new funding for water and wastewater infrastructure for municipalities. In November 2007, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released its report titled Danger Ahead: The Coming Collapse of Canada’s Municipal Infrastructure, which stated that $31 billion was needed to “repair and prevent deterioration” in water infrastructure (distribution, supply and treatment) and wastewater systems (sanitary and storm sewers and related treatment facilities). Currently, municipalities only receive funding from the P3 Canada Fund if they enter into a Public-Private Partnership (P3). To read about Moncton’s P3 experience, click here. The 2012 Alternative Federal Budget demands that $4 billion be invested in a National Public Water and Wastewater Fund. Municipal water transfers would then reach their yearly target of $3 billion in 2013–14 in order to pay down the $31 billion water and wastewater infrastructure deficit in 10 years. As well, the AFB calls for $1 billion for implementing national standards for municipal sewage treatment and wastewater effluent quality (with $1 billion per year over the next 20 years), including research and funding for environmentally friendly sewage treatment methods.

What can we do

Cuts to many critical services such as health care, water and wastewater services, employment insurance and pensions are expected to begin tomorrow and continue over the coming months. Provision of these public services are imperative to an adequate standard of living in Canada. This is a critical point in Canada where we need to protect these services that people have long fought for. Universal health care, publicly owned water and wastewater services and other social safety nets are a source of pride for many people in this country. While some of these areas need significant improvement, we must tell the Harper government — through rallies, letters to the editor, contact with our MPs — these are ours to keep and not his to give, sell or cut away.

Stay tuned for more budget analyses and how we will work to protect these critical public services in Canada.

Emma Lui - Fraser River

Emma Lui

Emma Lui is an activist, writer and researcher. She is a contributing editor with and a member of Cooperative Biblioterre. Emma is also the holistic health director for the Canadian Women...