Can P3 models help First Nations water crisis?

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By Joseph Quesnel, AIMS Fellow

In September, First Nations in the Maritimes made headlines for delivering clean water to Potlotek First Nation, a Cape Breton Míkmaq community experiencing a water crisis. Eskasoni First Nation alone delivered 20,000 litres, a commendable act of generosity and solidarity.

Water quality is an ongoing problem for First Nations across Canada. At any given time, over 100 communities can be under a boil water advisory. Atlantic First Nations are more problematic, as 21 East Coast bands operate water systems that are considered high risk. These communities face aging infrastructure, lack of training for operators, and a funding shortfall from Indigenous Affairs.

The Conservative government passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in 2013 and created regulations the following year. The Act creates enforceable quality standards, but issues of water delivery and governance remain.

The Liberal government has pledged $1.8 billion over five years for on-reserve infrastructure to address health and safety needs, ensure proper facility operation and maintenance, and end long-term drinking water advisories.

Atlantic Solutions

Simon Osmond, a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations, has suggested the idea of a First Nations Water Authority (FNWA) for Atlantic bands. The project, called the First Nations Clean Water Initiative, would involve a public-private partnership (P3) model.

According to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the plan would require bands to temporarily cede the land and assets tied to water systems to the FNWA. In turn, the Authority’s engineers, operators, and First Nations board would oversee water and wastewater operations. Under the P3 model, FNWA would sublease the land to a private company over a 25-year agreement.

This idea faces organized opposition. The Council of Canadians raises fear on reserves about these models and argues against private-sector solutions to First Nations water crises. But their complaints are unfounded, since P3 delivery models operate on a spectrum, falling quite short of full privatization.

The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships has released a report showing how P3s could significantly help address the infrastructure gap on First Nations, on water and wastewater treatment as well as other core areas.

Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada should not ignore the benefits of these models in delivering such an essential service.

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