Federal Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller visited the Semiahmoo First Nation Wednesday (July 28) to help celebrate the nation’s removal from a boil water advisory in place since 2005.
But it was also an opportunity to acknowledge, after discussion with SFN councillors, that much work still has to be done, he said.
Miller told Black Press Media that the federal government must continue to play a role in SFN infrastructure projects that may take as much as a decade to achieve.
“The point has been made that they don’t want us to disappear after this,” he said.
As SFN Councillor Joanne Charles pointed out during the celebration event at the Spirit Stage in Semiahmoo Park – even with a safe supply of drinking water thanks to a connection with the City of Surrey’s water system that was fully-tested in March – the nation is still responding to “an emergency situation.”
She reminded those attending that it had been triggered by the City of White Rock’s 2016 ultimatum that SFN had 18 months to replace the city as its principal supplier of water services.
Notwithstanding the Surrey connection and new agreements with White Rock for limited water services, important infrastructure work is needed to provide the nation with adequate water supply and waste water and sanitary services to ultimately enable the nation to bring back more SFN members to the Semiahmoo lands, she said.
“We still have lots of work to do in regard to long-term planning for future generations of the community and economic sustainability,” she said.
On hand to celebrate the progress made to this point were former SFN Chief Willard Cook and Coun. Kevin Cook, while Charles also noted that onlookers included both the eldest SFN member – her mother Mabel Charles – and also the newest, one month-old Arya Kampen.
Attending youth member Leanne Wells has spent her entire life, until now, on a boil-water advisory, Charles said, while Kampen is the first baby born since the advisory was lifted.
Miller also presented Charles with the donation of a tree of the community’s choice, to be planted as a symbol of future growth.
Miller pointed out that SFN is the 105th First Nation in Canada to have been removed from a long-term boil water advisory, with 50 more remaining across the country.
Some $1.5 billion in additional funding to ensure that operations and maintenance of these water systems is in the hands of First Nations workers was committed in December, he noted.
“Canada has made it a top priority that everyone in Canada has access to clean and reliable drinking water,” he said.
But he acknowledged the federal government is making up for years of inaction on the issue under different administrations.
He noted the excuse has often been made that First Nations communities are in remote areas.
“This is not a remote area,” he said, pointing out the Semiahmoo lands are less than a mile from Surrey, one of Canada’s most concentrated population areas.
“(SFN) has been knocking on our door for years,” he said.
“All government has to do is open its ears wider and make sure (the work) is done.”
In other media questioning at the event, Miller declined to suggest what actions Attorney General and Justice Minister David Lametti should do about prosecuting perpetrators in the abuses and deaths of First Nations children in the residential school system, in light of a new search for remains at the site of the former Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba, which operated from 1905 to 1970.
Confirmation of residential school children’s remains across the country has “caused outrage, frozen people in their tracks and caused Canada to face a reckoning,” he said.
“Canada has to step up,” he noted, adding that “we’re a country not entirely prepared for this.”
Canada has no counterpart to the U.S. system of appointing a special prosecutor, he said.
“We’re looking at a number of options,” he added. “There’s a line between what a government can do and a prosecutorial service can do, and they need to be independent.”
Charles said SFN supports all nations that lost children at the schools and urges action on their behalf, while noting that it appears that all SFN children who attended the schools “made it back to us.”
Further research is still needed, however, she said.
“We still have some family connections to check on.”