OTTAWA -- The federal Liberal government has admitted that its promise to eradicate all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada by March 2021 will be broken, because “at least” 22 existing drinking water advisories will remain in effect past the promised deadline.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller provided an update on Wednesday on the government’s longstanding commitment, where he said Indigenous communities have made it clear they don’t want “an Ottawa-imposed deadline,” but rather a sustained, long-term commitment to improve water systems for First Nations people, based on their priorities.

While he defended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promising a concrete deadline during the 2015 election campaign, Miller said it was “an ambitious deadline” that has become a “rallying cry for something that's much more profound, which is ensuring that people have access to clean and safe drinking water.”

“Let's be clear, this is a process, not a single event… Today we are making ourselves accountable, we’re making future governments accountable. And, while there have been many reasons for the delay I want to state as clearly as possible, that ultimately I bear responsibility for this, and I have the responsibility, and the duty to get this done,” Miller said.    

When the government began work to lift these advisories in November 2015, there were 105 drinking water advisories in effect in 67 First Nations communities for more than one year. Since then, 97 long-term drinking water advisories and 171 short-term advisories have been lifted. As of Wednesday, 59 long-term water advisories remain in effect in 41 communities.

“Of these remaining 59 long-term drinking water advisories in 41 communities, it is expected that at least 22 in 10 communities will be in effect, post March 2021,” said Indigenous Services deputy minister Christiane Fox on Wednesday during a technical briefing ahead of Miller’s press conference.

The government is no longer offering a concrete end date as to when all the outstanding advisories will be resolved.

“Achieving our shared goal of lifting long-term drinking water advisories, and ensuring access to safe drinking water is a complex, and often long endeavour,” Fox said.

In Monday’s fall economic statement, the federal government earmarked an additional $1.5 billion to be spent between now and April, as well as $114.1 million in years following, to address the issue. This was the first clear signal that the promise made by the Liberals would not be met on time.

“We've known for a long time there have been challenges, we've been scrambling to meet those deadlines,” Miller said on Wednesday. 

Indigenous Services Canada has provided financial support for the construction of 91 new water and wastewater treatment plants' 49 of these projects are complete and 42 are ongoing. As well, the government has assisted with renovations and upgrades to 400 existing water and wastewater systems. Of these 246 are complete and 154 are ongoing.  

“Every boil water advisory is unique and we are actively exploring every possible solution, in co-ordination with community leadership to ensure safe, clean drinking water,” said Miller. 

Trudeau had previously signalled in October that the government was struggling to complete the task, and backed away from meeting the 2021 timeline, citing COVID-19 as the reason for the delays.

During the pandemic, many First Nations communities have limited who is able to come on to their land, in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus. This slowed down the construction projects underway to repair or overhaul the water and wastewater systems in some communities. 

Prior to the pandemic, the government had projected to be down to 40 advisories by mid-2020, a target they have not met.

“The pandemic definitely had an impact… And I think that some of the long-term drinking water advisories were impacted by that, but it's not uniquely just about the pandemic,” Fox said.

“I think that as you work through major infrastructure, you encounter issues and I think what we are doing, day in, day out, is working with Indigenous leadership, trying to find solutions when we do encounter those unexpected issues, and work in partnership with them and find solutions to move forward and I think that we learn from each project.”

The federal government says that the $1.5 billion to be spent in 2020-21 and the funding set aside to be used later will go towards speeding up work to repair old and ineffective water infrastructure systems in these communities, as well as to keep up with operation and maintenance costs. This includes training more water operators who will be able to help sustain the water systems in the communities in hopes of leading to the new infrastructure having longer lifecycles.  

“Resolving long-term drinking water advisories positively affects all members of First Nations communities, bringing health benefits and potentially saving money currently going toward bottled water,” said the government in the fall economic statement. “Increased water and wastewater projects will also result in increased employment opportunities for members of First Nations communities on reserve through roles such as water operators, contractors and construction workers.”

The water advisories are based on quality tests, and are issued by First Nations leadership on reserves, and municipal or provincial/territorial governments off-reserve. There are three types of drinking water advisories:

  • 'Boil water' advisories, which requires the water to be boiled before consuming or for cooking or cleaning;
  • 'Do not consume' advisories, which means the water cannot be consumed or used for cooking or cleaning, but adult bathing is okay; and
  • 'Do not use' advisories, where people cannot use the water for any reason.

In any case, the advisories force community members to find alternate water sources, adding an extra step to basic daily functions such as bathing or cooking dinner.

The government couldn’t provide an estimate of how many people are currently impacted by these ongoing advisories in each community. 

The failure to deliver on “one of their largest commitments” to Indigenous people in Canada shows that the Liberals have “lost all credibility” when it comes to reconciliation, said Conservative MP and Indigenous Services critic Gary Vidal in a statement.

“It is time to get creative. It is time for the Minister of Indigenous Services to look outside his department. We have some of the most innovative and brightest business minds and entrepreneurs in Canada. We should be using them to put an end to this national embarrassment,” Vidal said.  

The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Indigenous advocates and some opposition MPs have been highlighting for years the need to increase the amount of funding the federal government had set aside to complete this task. 

“I am not sure why the Liberals are acting surprised that they have failed to meet their election promises on First Nation water. It's been three years since the Parliamentary Budget Office warned they were low-balling the costs and wouldn't meet their target,” tweeted NDP MP Charlie Angus on Wednesday.

The government had previously committed more than $2.1 billion, with all of it committed to certain projects, and $1.6 billion of it was already spent as of the end of June.

Director General of the Community Infrastructure Branch Chad Westmacott said that at the time, the initial funding allocated was going to be sufficient to complete the task, but as the work got underway additional issues were discovered. However, neither he nor Miller would say why it took the government until just a few months before the promised deadline to allocate more funding to completing this endeavour.