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Tory MP walks back comments on First Nations water plants amid criticism

Indigenous Services Minister says there’s no place in the House of Commons for the kind of rhetoric
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh rises during Question Period in the House of Commons, Tuesday, April 13, 2021 in Ottawa. Waugh is walking back comments he made earlier this week when he implied First Nations are burning down water treatment plants in their communities.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

After drawing criticism earlier this week for saying that some First Nations are burning down water treatment plants because of the federal Liberal government, a Conservative MP is now walking back his comments.

Saskatchewan MP Kevin Waugh made the assertion in the House of Commons on Monday during a debate on the government’s First Nations water bill.

“In my home province of Saskatchewan, I have seen reserves burn down water treatment plants because the Liberal government has done little or nothing,” Waugh said, directing his comments towards Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu.

He added there needs to be “education provided for people on reserve to operate these water treatment plants,” and blamed the Liberals for not doing more.

Waugh’s office confirmed Wednesday he was referring to fires in Saskatchewan First Nations in recent years.

A water plant in Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation was damaged by a fire in 2019, and another in Piapot First Nation burned down in 2018.

But no specific cause was reported for either fire, and the MP’s office conceded he is not familiar with any specific circumstances, saying he did not intend to make any implication 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.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said there’s no place in the House of Commons for the kind of rhetoric she heard from Waugh on Monday — especially during debate on a bill that seeks to restore First Nations’ inherent rights.

“The first question coming from the Conservative side of the benches really illustrated the kinds of harmful stereotypes that First Nations have been living with for a very long time,” Hajdu told reporters outside the House of Commons earlier this week.

She added that his remarks implied First Nations are destroying their own infrastructure and that they don’t have the skills, dignity or capacity to run their own water treatment plants.

Hajdu said she would consult with interim Liberal House leader Steven MacKinnon on whether they would ask Waugh to withdraw his comments.

The Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 34 First Nations in southern Manitoba, said Waugh’s remarks reinforced harmful stereotypes about First Nations in an era of reconciliation.

“I urge all members of Parliament to remember the devastation First Nation people and communities have experienced at the hands of governments and systems in what is now Canada,” said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.

“Elected officials must remember the importance of building relationships with First Nations based on kindness and mutual respect to benefit everyone.”

Waugh’s office said his party will continue to work with Indigenous Peoples to ensure First Nations communities have access to clean drinking water.

The much-anticipated legislation MPs are debating seeks to improve water quality in First Nations communities, improve collaboration on water protection and codify a new First Nations-led water commission.

It was tabled in December more than a year after the federal government repealed legislation on drinking water for First Nations that dated back to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

Harper’s government said at the time that the 2013 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act aimed to support the development of federal regulations that would improve First Nations’ access to clean drinking water and the effective treatment of wastewater.

But many First Nations said the legislation was ineffective and dangerous, citing concerns about a lack of sustainable funding and the infringement of constitutional rights.

Hajdu touted the new bill as the result of immense collaboration and knowledge-sharing, though some First Nations pushed back on that assertion when the legislation was introduced.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press