COLUMN: Semiahmoo First Nation water threat unwarranted

The federal government needs to show leadership and undertake constitutional obligations to supply the needs of First Nations people.

The impasse between the City of White Rock and Semiahmoo First Nation over water services is a sad and outdated reflection of what many of us hoped was gone forever – a colonial mentality towards the descendants of people who lived here first.

White Rock has threatened to cut off the water supply to the First Nation lands located immediately south of the city. It’s all part of a bargaining strategy and Mayor Wayne Baldwin said the intent of the wording in the letter has been misinterpreted.

The letter stated it was “formal notice that the city will terminate existing water and sanitary-sewer services to the reserve within a reasonable time… 18 months.”

Baldwin calls it a “possible outcome,” depending on progress of negotiations, but Semiahmoo councillor Joanne Charles said the intent is “pretty clear.”

The issue of proper basic services on First Nations lands is not unique. Across Canada, many First Nations have poor water supplies, and these are significant health hazards. (On the Semiahmoo lands, many homes have no water at all; those that do have been under a boil-water advisory since 2005.)

Locally, there have been considerable efforts over the years to improve the water supply. Most notably, the federal government made arrangements for Metro Vancouver to supply water to the Katzie on Barnston Island.

The federal government is responsible for providing services to First Nations people who live on reserves and have not made other arrangement through negotiated treaties. Often, little more than lip service is paid to that responsibility.

Gradually, that has been changing, at least in the Lower Mainland, where there has been a pretty good working relationship with all three levels of government and First Nations leaders in recent years.

In the South Fraser region, this has led to a treaty with the Tsawwassen people, and vastly improved relations with the Kwantlen and Katzie First Nations. This is as it should be. People of all backgrounds need to get along, and Canadian governments have a number of specific obligations to First Nations, as defined by centuries of law, the constitution and court rulings.

The Semiahmoo First Nation used to have a pretty good relationship with Surrey and White Rock, but that has become strained. It doesn’t matter who’s at fault. Strengthening that relationship should be a primary goal of both local governments, and senior levels need to ensure they too are doing their job.

To its credit, Surrey heard from Charles and Chief Willard Cook last week. They requested an emergency connection to Surrey’s water and sewer systems. Meanwhile, according to Charles, “White Rock hasn’t responded to our requests for meetings for months.”

If for whatever reason the City of White Rock cannot supply water to the Semiahmoo First Nation, where there are some challenging living conditions, it should not be threatening SFN – or even be perceived to threaten it.

The federal government needs to show leadership and undertake what is its constitutional obligations to supply the needs of First Nations people. It should be communicating with both SFN and White Rock and making every effort to sort out this matter.

As well, Surrey needs to be standing by and offering to assist. The Semiahmoo First Nation is located within the bounds of the city and has an obligation to the people who live on that piece of land.

This situation should never have come to this point. It is a sad reflection on how little progress there has been in the relationships between our governments and the Semiahmoo First Nation.

Most people in Surrey and White Rock, who have access to clean water, would be outraged to put up with such conditions. They need to pressure their local governments, MPs and MLAs to get this problem solved – and quickly.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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