Joseph QuesnelSelf-determination for Indigenous communities can prevent meeting certain standards or goals, especially if the federal government takes a hands-off approach.

This can be the problem when it comes to ensuring all First Nations have access to safe drinking water, which isn’t a simple matter.

It has never been only about providing the necessary funds (whatever that number may be) and believing everything will take care of itself. Proper infrastructure must be constructed and maintained. Authorities must also provide governance of water services, and qualified people must provide the services and ensure regular testing.


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Meeting this critical commitment to First Nation communities mustn’t come down to which political party would invest the most money in infrastructure. Pointing to dollars invested doesn’t mean more communities leave long-term boil-water advisories behind.

First Nations must be well served by qualified contractors. If the federal government is acting to ensure all First Nation communities have access to clean, safe drinking water, it must also ensure they’re served well by those building the services.

But this isn’t always the case.

In February, several media reported that some contractors in Indigenous communities were allegedly guilty of excessive overcharges, deficient work, delays and even racism.

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All Canadians have a vested interest in ensuring those dollars are spent well. They also have a right to know that we’re on track to meet commitments to Indigenous communities.

Reports criticize Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) policies as they seem to urge First Nations to adopt the lowest bid under a competitive tendering process.

However, ISC spokespeople pointed out that the policy is about the lowest valid bid price. They also pointed out that, “In some instances, the First Nation may choose to conduct a pre-qualifying process of the contractors through public notification, to ensure the contractors bidding on the contract via the tendering process meet a set of minimum qualification requirements.”

However, ISC seems to maintain a hands-off approach to these arrangements.

“Tendering and contracting for community infrastructure-related products, systems and services are led and managed by the respective First Nations,” said ISC spokesperson Danielle Geary.

“If requested by a community, ISC can provide additional support or technical advice as required, as well as funding to support the contracting of consulting and project management services. ISC does not manage contractual relationships between a First Nation and any hired contractor.”

Explaining the ISC’s reasoning, Geary said: “ISC is committed to supporting the self-determination of First Nations, which means respecting communities’ control over their own infrastructure assets.”

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Unfortunately, not all First Nations have access to the information needed to make better decisions. There may be a place for a limited federal government role, especially if public money is involved. Some argue this may mean ISC maintains a list of qualified contractors for communities, but this may not be enough.

This hands-off approach is also used in the case of Indigenous communities that choose to opt-out of Indian Act election rules and choose custom regulations. Once a First Nation does this, the federal government washes its hands of its conduct – ISC won’t intervene.

However, some Indigenous leaders have engaged in undemocratic practices once they adopt new electoral processes.

So sovereignty isn’t a simple issue. While we aim for some form of self-government, the reality is much more complex. Indigenous communities have complicated legal, political and financial relationships with the Canadian state.

In providing safe drinking water, the federal government shouldn’t treat First Nations as if they’re self-sustaining, independent states. It should always grant them some measure of autonomy while encouraging self-reliance, but be conscious that they will sometimes require intervention.

Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Joseph is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


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