Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Kashechewan: Canada's Katrina, Only Worse

Over a thousand residents of the Kashechewan Reserve are now being evacuated for medical treatment, due to contaminated drinking water.

What makes this wrenching is that this could have been avoided, according to information in the Globe and Mail:

[Ontario Natural Resources Minister David] Ramsay, who is also responsible for aboriginal affairs in the province, said he was spurred into action after clearing up a "jurisdictional misunderstanding" with the federal government.

According to a copy of a 1992 Emergency Preparedness Agreement signed by Ottawa and Ontario, the province is responsible for providing emergency assistance when requested by the Department of Indian Affairs or a first-nations community.

The federal government is then responsible for costs incurred by the province.

Federal Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott described the terms of the agreement in a phone conversation yesterday, Mr. Ramsay said. "A call over the noon hour from Mr. Scott pointed me in the right direction."

Does this sound familiar? It's exactly the problem which plagued disaster relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: jurisdictions pointing to each other to take action first, while the problem worsens.

The problem happened because of the multi-jurisdictional nature of native reserves. The federal government is in the midst of transferring powers from the Ministry to the local level; in the meantime, provincial responsibilities over things such as water treatment (which falls under natural resources) have to be worked out. And in the midst of this bureaucratic wrangling, real-life problems get worse.

Blue Blogging Soapbox has suggested that this would have been an appropriate situation for Canada's DART team. While they could have used the experience in setting up potable water facilities, BBS is wrong in one respect: DART is meant to handle natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. This disaster is completely man-made.