By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A last-minute reprieve is both a blessing and a surprise for Wunnumin Lake First Nation with council poised to sign a band council resolution “under duress.”
The BCR would have seen Wunnumin Lake Nation sign on to a settlement agreement for a class-action litigation, delivering the Nation in Ontario funding for Canada’s failure to provide safe drinking water in First Nations communities. That same settlement, however, left the vast majority of the Nation’s members without individual compensation.
“Just (Tuesday) morning we were talking to our legal counsel about signing this resolution under duress,” said Deputy Chief Dean Cromarty. “I’m relieved it’s extended.”
Cromarty didn’t find out about a four-month extension granted by the courts to consider the agreement until he was contacted by Windspeaker.com late on the afternoon of Nov. 29.
In December 2021, an $8 billion settlement of two national class-action lawsuits was approved by the Federal Court and Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench. That settlement covered First Nations and their residents who were subject to a water advisory for at least one year between Nov. 20, 1995, and June 20, 2021.
First Nations that met the criteria initially had until Dec. 2,
2022 to opt into the settlement in order to receive a no-strings attached amount of $500,000. Whatever compensation their individual members would receive, the band would also get 50 per cent of that amount.
But the issue, Cromarty told Windspeaker.com, was that council was struggling with how best to serve its 506 members. Only 84 met the timeframe set out in the settlement agreement for individual compensation.
“It would be unfair. The 84 would get the full compensation and the rest will get nothing,” said Cromarty, even though those members were impacted by boil water advisories as well, but just outside of the timeframe of the settlement.
It was always known that some First Nations members who had experienced boil water advisories would fall outside of the starting date of the settlement, said legal counsel Harry LaForme of Olthuis Kleer Townshend (OKT). He told Windspeaker.com earlier this year that limitation periods are standard.
OKT was one of two law firms involved in negotiating the settlement.
“This was the date that was fixed up because it was the best date and the most generous to First Nations that would be able to get more First Nations involved and individuals involved,” said LaForme.
The settlement does not impact the rights of those who suffered boil water advisories for less than the specified one-year time frame, or those who suffered prior to Nov. 20, 1995. Those members can pursue their own legal recourse, LaForme said.
However, moving forward with more litigation isn’t what Wunnumin is after, said Cromarty.
“The decision has been made that First Nations under boil water advisories will be compensated, which is fine for maybe a lot of the communities. But for Wunnumin it’s different. It excludes the majority of our community members,” he said.
“We’re asking (the government) to make a political decision to correct that problem and provide the compensation for the remaining members.”
Cromarty said that talks with Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu and her staff have resulted in nothing solid. Windspeaker.com reached out to Hajdu’s office and did not receive a direct response.
Instead, spokesperson Vincent Gauthier said the department was working “closely” with Wunnumin Lake First Nation to advance a water and wastewater feasibility study.
“That (study) will inform the required investments to ensure that the community has reliable access to safe clean drinking water as well as wastewater treatment that meets the immediate and the long-term needs of Wunnumin Lake First Nation,” wrote Gauthier in an email.
The class-action settlement includes an infrastructure commitment of at least $6 billion to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves.
The decision to extend the deadline four more months came as orders from the courts on Nov. 24, said Darian Baskatawang, class counsel for the First Nation drinking water class action and an associate with OKT.
The deadline has been extended to March 7, 2023.
“Notice will be provided to the class members informing them of this extension shortly. Class Counsel is also in touch with nations to let them know directly,” Baskatawang told Windspeaker.com in an email.
He said the deadline extension would allow OKT to work with communities and do follow up, providing more details and support on the settlement agreement.
“Now we can have more time to reach out to the government,” said Cromarty.
The settlement agreement included $1.5 billion in compensation to individuals deprived of clean drinking water. Individuals who did qualify under the class action, could opt out of the agreement. No one opted out, said Baskatawang.
The settlement agreement also included the creation of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund and the creation of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water.
Shari Narine is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Windspeaker.com. The LJI is a federally funded program.