New Indian Affairs minister quick off the mark with plans for action

But tricky portfolio has way of foiling success

Don Martin
Calgary Herald

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

OTTAWA -- He'll announce a cleanup of tainted drinking water on 15 native reserves in two weeks.

He'll take policies designed to kick-start the $7-billion Mackenzie Valley pipeline project to cabinet next month.

Then Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice plans to revamp the Indian Act and ensure a $5-billion pre-election goodie loosely targeted on improving aboriginal health, education and housing doesn't disappear into a black hole of missing First Nations accountability.

This much Prentice knows for sure after just two weeks on the job: Enough talking native issues; it's time to start walking.

"The Liberals did consultation for the sake of consultation. They used it to defer difficult decisions," he says, sipping an evening beer in a local club this week.

"We have a clear sense of what we are doing and we will make tough decisions, because the status quo isn't working."

Perhaps it's no surprise Prentice is bursting out of the starting gate, unleashing an aggressive agenda to shake up the status quo before his office is unpacked. He's got a major advantage over his parade of predecessors, having spent 10 years inside the department as law commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission.

So while the other rookie ministers are immersed in briefing books with dictionaries to help them decipher the bureaucratese, Prentice has been doing the briefing for officials on what he wants done.

The Calgary MP's first priority is to avoid a Kashechewan II, the Ontario reserve which had to be evacuated in chaotic haste last fall after an E. coli outbreak which, in the end, was traced to local mismanagement.

Early next month, Prentice plans to reveal an emergency response plan to deal with any future water problems and a 45-day blueprint to bring 15 communities suffering acute water treatment failure up to safe standards. They'll be given the proper training and equipment to deliver the clean goods, he says. If they fail, future funding could be cut.

"Aboriginal Canadians are not going to live at risk as long as I am the minister," Prentice declares.

Words to die by for a minister, perhaps, given that hundreds of millions have been invested by earlier federal governments with little evident progress. But let's give Prentice a few months to perform before he's disillusioned by a reality check.

The minister is also big on revamping the Indian Act to deal with the failure of aboriginal education programs administered by the federal government. Education exists in a "legislative vacuum" which doesn't deliver the curricula, protections and services afforded students in the regular school system.

The Harper government also wants to deal with the 800,000 off-reserve Indian, Inuit and Metis who don't receive the bucks or the benefits afforded those in their First Nations territory.

But the top Prentice assignment in the "mandate letter" all ministers received at their swearing-in ceremony is to jackhammer away obstacles hindering progress on the massive Mackenzie Valley pipeline.

"It's not just a pipeline, but a spine of northern development. It will change the east-west axis of oil and gas development northward from the Alberta border to the Arctic Ocean. When it's finished, the Northwest Territories will be a driving engine of our economy," he insists.

But there are plenty of migraines waiting for Prentice before the first kilometre of pipe is buried.

The militant Deh Cho First Nations, whose disputed land claims bisect the pipeline route, remain a daunting obstacle. A $1.2-billion subsidy demanded by lead partner Imperial Oil is a hard-sell handout. And loan guarantees sought by aboriginal partners seem to clash with Conservative opposition to political cash supporting business endeavours.

There are dozens of other native issues which suggest Prentice has inherited a $6-billion department where survival is the only hope and political suicide is a distinct probability.

Improvement, if any, is measured in decades, and demands for more money never cease. It's almost impossible to strike the right balance when it comes to federal intervention. If Prentice is too hard on native leaders, he'll be accused of heavy-handed paternalism. Go too soft and history suggests band mismanagement and corruption will block progress. Getting it just right is something Prentice will seek but may never find.

Even so, Prentice seems to relish swimming in a departmental cesspool which routinely drowns even good ministers. It's an oddly positive reaction for a guy who seems to know what he's doing.

Don Martin writes for the Calgary Herald

© The Edmonton Journal 2006

Tories promise action on native water woes

Sue Bailey
Canadian Press

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

OTTAWA -- Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice is set to announce the first-ever national water standards for native reserves within two weeks.

But meeting the new federal guidelines will require millions of dollars in upgraded equipment and training. "There's a lot of work to be done," Prentice said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"But we're going to change the way the system operates. We're going to identify people at risk and we're going to deal with them immediately."

Just 40 per cent of water treatment plant operators on reserves are certified. And 76 of 615 First Nations across Canada are under boil-water orders, says Health Canada.

Some communities have dealt with related hazards for years.

The issue made searing headlines last October when 1,000 residents of a remote northern Ontario community were evacuated. Many needed treatment for skin rashes and illness blamed on dirty water and poor sanitation.

"Like all other Canadians, I was appalled by what I saw at Kashechewan," Prentice said.

"As long as I'm minister, I intend to do everything within my power to try to make sure that we identify situations where communities are at risk, and that we take action."

He'll consult native leaders about what they need to reach national water-quality targets, he said.

Ultimately - he hopes within five years - those benchmarks will be enforced as a prerequisite for related federal support.

"If we're going to be funding improvements and remedial action plans, we would expect that people would work toward the national standards."

Bureaucratic ineptitude and general neglect have been blamed for the fact that dozens of First Nations still can't trust what comes out of the tap.

Canada's Environment Commissioner Johanne Gelinas rapped the former Liberal government last September for dragging its heels.

Indian Affairs in 2001 found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water for three-quarters of reserve systems. Despite the looming threat, there were still no federal standards four years later.

Gelinas also noted that about $1.9 billion spent to upgrade water services between 1995 and 2003 achieved little.

The federal government announced another $1.6 billion in 2003 to be spent over five years.

"There's adequate resources," Prentice said, adding that what's needed is a methodical plan to help reserves that are most at risk.

Prentice said independent consultants for Indian Affairs have cited about 15 First Nations that fall into that category.

"The factors that you use to judge whether it's a community at risk depend on a number of things," he explained. "The source of the problem, the nature of the system, the extent to which the system is current or out of date, and the ability of operators, etc."

Indian Affairs is also crafting an emergency response plan to define duties should another Kashechewan occur.

Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council representing James Bay reserves, said he knows of up to 20 communities in Ontario alone that desperately need help.

"Canada is way in the dark ages. We're in 2006 and here we are talking about . . . basic potable water for communities. It never fails to amaze me that governments fail to act or don't recognize a situation until disaster strikes."

The Canadian Press 2006