10/01/2011 08:00 EDT | Updated 12/01/2011 05:12 EST

Third-world living conditions for First Nations should be election issue: Chief

WINNIPEG - One of Manitoba's aboriginal leaders says the lack of clean, running water and the third-world living conditions of Manitoba's First Nations should be a central issue in the provincial election.

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents the province's northern First Nations, said many communities in the northeast have been neglected for years.

"Here we are sitting in northeastern Manitoba and it's in a third world state," he said in a recent interview. "There is a lack of running water, no running water. This coming winter, some kids and elders in that area, will not have any clean drinking water. Yet every flu season, it seems to happen that people are dying."

But as the province prepares to go to the polls Tuesday, very little has been done to woo First Nation voters. Very few political leaders have ventured into predominantly First Nation northern ridings and none have focused heavily on aboriginal policies.

Some leaders have said they are "championing" aboriginal issues but Harper hasn't seen that yet.

"If you are championing the issue and you still have third-world living conditions in northern Manitoba, you can't say (you are) championing the issue," said Harper, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

NDP Premier Greg Selinger just returned from campaigning in St. Teresa Point, a remote fly-in First Nation whose living conditions were highlighted during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009.

While there, he said he visited a family living in a home with no running water. Given reserves are Ottawa's responsibility, Selinger said there is only so much the province can do.

"It is, in many cases, unacceptable living conditions and we have to continually work to get that done," Selinger said. "The federal government has to take the responsibility for that. We can't use that as an excuse. We have to push them and, at the same time, work with those communities to get things done."

The NDP is promising to bolster access to health care for remote aboriginal communities, Selinger said. The province spends a large amount of money flying people out of their communities to larger urban centres for medical treatment. Selinger said that doesn't make sense, either for the patient or the province's pocketbook.

The NDP is also building an all-season road in northeastern Manitoba to make remote, fly-in communities more accessible and has brought post-secondary training closer to home so people can learn trades, Selinger said.

"Train people to know how to do the work necessary to have running water and toilets in homes," he said. "When you have skilled people, it's so much easier to do the installations because the people are available right in the community to do it."

Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said his party would focus on improving the lot of First Nation communities thorough economic development opportunities. Many of the social problems on reserves, like poverty, stem from unemployment, he said.

"We think that if we can generate more opportunities for work and economic development, that begins to provide some of the wealth necessary to improve health standards and housing and other areas which are really not acceptable," McFadyen said.

A Conservative government would also look at how non-aboriginal towns could share their water treatment plants and infrastructure with neighbouring reserves, he added.

Still, some aboriginal leaders say many First Nations voters feel estranged from the provincial political process and this election may not change that.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said treaty people are used to dealing primarily with the federal government.

"The provincial process or the provincial election hasn't always been that urgent of a matter for us to create a groundswell of involvement," he said. "There is also the consideration that many of our people, particularly the ones who work from treaty-based principles, do not consider themselves to be Manitobans."