Piapot First Nation demands MP apologize, retract ‘baseless’ water plant burning remark

A Cree First Nation wants a member of Parliament to apologize for saying First Nations in Saskatchewan have burned down water treatment plants over Liberal government inaction.

The water treatment plant in Piapot First Nation, about 45 kilometres northeast of Regina, burned in 2018 but repeated investigations identified the blaze’s cause as a propane leak, not arson, community leadership said in a statement Friday.

They are denouncing Saskatoon-Grasswood Conservative MP Kevin Waugh’s insinuations of intentional damage as a misleading insult that perpetuates racist stereotypes.

“These statements from the MP are not only without merit, but deeply disrespectful to the people of Piapot First Nation and all First Nations committed to the stewardship of our lands and resources,” said Chief Mark Fox in the media release.

“We call for a formal apology and retraction of these baseless claims.”

Fox added that such claims shift focus away from the actual issues First Nations face with infrastructure and resource management, issues that “should not be overshadowed by such ill-advised and misinformed political rhetoric.”

A water treatment plant also burned in Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation in 2019, where the cause was reported as undetermined.

MPs debated the Trudeau government’s proposed First Nations Clean Water Act, Bill C-61, at second reading in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 5, when Waugh made the contested remark.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu had accused the Harper Conservative government of ignoring and underfunding on-reserve water systems for nearly a decade. Waugh was the first Conservative to speak in response.

“In my province of Saskatchewan, I have seen reserves burn down water treatment plants because this government has done little or nothing,” he said. 

“The minister can talk about the previous Harper government, but this government has done very little in the last eight and a half years.”

He continued by saying “there needs to be education provided for people on reserve to operate these water treatment plants,” which Hajdu denounced as “paternalism.”

Waugh’s office told the Canadian Press last week he is not familiar with any specific circumstances and did not intend to imply anything about why the fires happened.

“MP Waugh was pointing out that after eight years of Justin Trudeau and this Liberal government, what we have is a trail of broken promises and countless Indigenous communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water,” his office said.

Waugh’s office hasn’t yet responded to requests for further comment sent Monday.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu rises during question period in the House of Commons in December in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Fox and the Piapot council condemned Waugh’s remarks as “misleading, grossly disrespectful and entirely unfounded.”

“They perpetuate racist stereotypes that undermine the hard work, skill, and dedication of its well-trained professionals who have been managing the water treatment plants effectively for years,” the statement said.

Water legislation long time coming

The Liberal government failed to deliver on a cornerstone campaign pledge to end all long-term boil water advisories on reserves by March 2021.

In 2021, Auditor General Karen Hogan found the Trudeau government “was not on track to meet its target” and “did not provide the support necessary” to ensure First Nations have clean drinking water.

Indigenous Services Canada reported 28 long-term advisories in 26 communities as of last month, down from over 100 long-term advisories in 2015.

First Nations organizations and other MPs have raised questions about who helped draft the new proposed legislation, why it doesn’t guarantee sufficient funding, and why it doesn’t recognize clean drinking water as a human right.

When pressed during the debate, Liberal MPs suggested the Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella advocacy organization for all chiefs in Canada, backs the bill. The assembly hadn’t publicly released its position as of publishing time.

The bill would replace 2013 Harper-era legislation repealed in 2022, which the assembly previously denounced as ineffective and dangerous “colonialism on tap.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, representing 49 communities in northern Ontario, said in a statement some First Nations had opportunities for input, “but we do not agree that this legislation has been co-drafted.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, representing 74 communities in Saskatchewan, said in a statement the first public draft of the bill “was developed in secret by Indigenous Services Canada without any direct input from First Nations.”

Hajdu told the House the committee stage, where MPs study the bill and hear witness testimony, presents an opportunity for further consultation and possible amendments.

Despite the partisan feuding, Conservative Crown-Indigenous relations critic Jamie Schmale told the House his party intends to support the bill at second reading.

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