OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to be backing away from sticking to the Liberals’ years-long pledge to lift all outstanding drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities in Canada, by March 2021.

Asked twice to confirm the commitment and timeline to complete it, Trudeau would only say that the federal government will keep working to lift the outstanding advisories “as soon as possible.”

“We recognize there's lots more work to do,” Trudeau said during a media availability on Friday. “We will continue to work extremely hard to lift those long-term boil water advisories as soon as possible.” 

The prime minister said the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions have “created challenges” in the government’s ability to fulfill this promise. There are 128 days until March 1, 2021. 

According to Trudeau, the Liberals have lifted “around 95” drinking water advisories since forming government in 2015. The Liberals had been tracking their progress online but those numbers have not been updated since prior to the pandemic. 

According to Indigenous Services Canada, the department is working to update the status of outstanding advisories as the figures online are outdated. As of the last time the dashboard was updated, there were 61 long-term drinking water advisories still in effect at public water systems managed by the federal government. 

These drinking water warnings have been in place for more than a year. 

“As we know this is the commitment that matters an awful lot to us as a government, but matters even more to Indigenous communities across the country that have gone in many cases decades, without safe drinking water,” Trudeau said, adding that he continues to be “optimistic” about resolving the outstanding cases.

This week, as The Canadian Press has reported, hundreds of people have been evacuated from the Neskantaga First Nation in northwestern Ontario after an oily sheen was discovered in their water reservoir, forcing the plant to shut down until tests could be completed. 

That community’s water advisory, in place since 1995, is the longest-standing in Canada. The construction of a replacement treatment system was projected to be finished in 2018, but the current status, according to the government, is that work is ongoing. 

Asked about this example,e Trudeau said reconciliation in Canada will involve “many steps forward and a few steps back,” but committed that Indigenous Services Marc Miller is working with the community to resolve their current crisis. 

As CTV has previously reported, critics have raised concern with the pace and scope of work left to be done to fulfill the mandate commitment. 

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

According to Indigenous Services Canada, as of more than a year ago, there were 441 projects underway to improve water infrastructure in these communities. 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 like bathing or cooking dinner.