Until the federal government addresses several underlying deficiencies with the water systems and implements regulatory standards, First Nations communities in Canada will continue to not have reliable access to clean drinking water, according to the auditor general.
In a new report issued Thursday, auditor general Karen Hogan found that Indigenous Services Canada "did not provide adequate support to First Nations communities," to ensure they have access to safe drinking water.
In order to ensure that once all outstanding drinking water advisories are lifted, history doesn’t repeat itself, the federal government needs to make long-term water system improvements, commit to sufficient funding for operations and maintenance, and put regulations in place, her report reads.
"There are many temporary measures that are put into place, and a temporary measure just pushes the issue a little further down the road, so it is time to find long-term sustainable solutions for First Nations communities," said Hogan in a press conference on Thursday.
Without these long-term measures, these communities will not have the same drinking water protections as the rest of the country, the report finds, after examining the state of the federal government’s commitment to eliminate all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada by March 2021.
The audit covered the period between November 2015 and November 2020. In December 2020, the federal Liberal government admitted that its promise to lift all outstanding water advisories would be broken, with “at least” 22 existing drinking water advisories set to remain in effect past the promised deadline. Hogan told reporters Thursday that during their work, it became clear the Liberal promise would not be kept.
At the time, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller vowed the work will continue, a sentiment echoed by his departments response given to Hogan’s office ahead of these findings coming to light.
The government is no longer offering a concrete end date as to when all the outstanding advisories will be resolved, though the audit suggested that it may be years still before long-term water improvements are in place in some communities.
"While there are some plans in place or under development, those solutions won't be in place until at least 2025, that's a very long time for a community to go without safe drinking water," said Hogan.
"Implementing sustainable solutions requires continued partnership between the department and First Nations. Until these solutions are implemented, First Nations communities will continue to experience challenges in accessing safe drinking water—a basic human necessity," reads the report.
INTERM MEASURES NOT ENOUGH
In an effort to establish safe drinking water supplies in First Nations communities the federal government has helped pay for the construction of 91 new water and wastewater treatment plants, while working on upgrades to 400 existing water and wastewater systems, with work outstanding to both the new systems and those being renovated.
The audit found that: "although interim measures provided affected communities with temporary access to safe drinking water, some long-term solutions were not expected to be completed for several years."
For example, of the 100 long-term drinking water advisories that were eliminated between November 2015 and November 2020, just 15 were eliminated as a result of interim measures. Of those, long-term solutions "were not fully implemented for any of these water systems," with either feasibility or construction still underway.
"The department expected that the majority of these projects would be completed between 2022 and 2024," according to the audit.
"Drinking water advisories have remained a constant in many communities, with almost half outstanding for more than 10 years. In some cases, advisories were lifted as a result of interim measures that did not fully address underlying deficiencies," said Hogan.
Further, even with these water system changes being made, the department’s risk ratings for water infrastructure "remained unchanged."
When comparting the department’s annual assessments for the 2014-15 and 2019-20 fiscal years, 43 per cent of systems remained rated at high or medium risk.
One of the reasons the federal government cited for not being able to meet its drinking water pledge was COVID-19. 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 underway to repair or overhaul the water and wastewater systems in some communities.
The Auditor General’s probe deemed that while those factors delayed progress on some projects, "many were already facing delays prior to the pandemic."
In a subsequent press conference on Thursday, Miller reaffirmed his government's commitment to resolve the advisories but emphasized once again the pandemic-related construction delays.
"We can't deny the loss of a construction season due to COVID-19. However, I can confirm that there are project plans in place and underway to resolve all 57 remaining advisories which affect 39 communities," he said without committing to a specific date.
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal said the findings are "unacceptable."
"Government success isn’t measured by funding announcements, it’s measured by outcomes, and it is unacceptable that any Canadian is without clean drinking water. The Liberals like to make eye-catching promises in order to win elections but their consistent failure to deliver on these promises is undermining trust and hurting reconciliation," he said.
Similarly, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the report’s findings a Liberal "failure."
"There is no excuse anyone in our country doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, particularly the first people of this land. So we are going to continue to fight for clean drinking water for Indigenous people," he said.
UNCLEAR IF FUNDING 'SUFFICIENT'
The report also stated that it remains unclear whether the funding committed to to-date will be enough allow First Nations to retain water operators and continue maintaining their water infrastructure down the road.
"Indigenous Services Canada’s efforts have been constrained by a number of issues, including an outdated policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of water infrastructure," the report finds, adding that the formula dates back to 1987.
She said it’s time to update this formula before any additional funding is committed but as it stands, it is not working.
Beginning in 2016–17, the government allocated $2 billion to meet its drinking water commitment and as of the end of November 2020, the department estimated that $1.79 billion had been spent.
In the 2020 fall economic statement, the federal government earmarked an additional $1.5 billion to be spent tackling these drinking water advisories, as well as $114.1 million starting in the 2026–27 for the operation and maintenance of water and wastewater systems.
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.
Hogan said that her audit found that water operators in First Nations communities make approximately 30 per cent less than they would if they worked off-reserve.
"The department will continue to work with central agencies to ensure that long-term stable funding is available to commit toward these projects and to address the long-term needs of communities," said Indigenous Services Canada in response to this finding.
Further, there remains to be no regulatory regime in place for managing drinking water in First Nations communities.
"While provinces and territories have their own legally-binding safe drinking water protections, First Nations communities do not have comparable legally enforceable protections," said Hogan’s report.
Indigenous Services Canada is currently working with First Nations to develop a new legislative framework, “with the goal of supporting the development of a regulatory regime,” but it remains unclear when this will be in place.
"Such a regime would provide First Nations communities with drinking water protections comparable with other communities in Canada," the report states.
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.
The audit found that as of November 2020, most drinking water advisories in First Nations communities were boil-water advisories.
These kinds of restrictions force community members to find alternate water sources, adding an extra step to basic daily functions such as bathing or cooking dinner.
Hogan noted that while her report focused on the long-term water advisories, communities also experience short-term water issues.
"Just because a water advisory doesn't last 365 days doesn't mean that it doesn't have any impact on a community, and hence it really is important to find out the root causes of these water quality issues, so that they can be addressed. It really is an unacceptable situation in 2020 that so many people don't have access to safe drinking water," she said.
Asked why a regulatory framework hasn’t yet been put in place and when that will happen, Miller said on Thursday it requires extensive collaboration with First Nations.
"We know that the previous regime didn’t work, was widely decried. We’re currently with the Assembly of First Nations specifically on how that framework would look. But it is something that will have to be a little wider than the AFN and working with regional water authorities," he said.
"I can’t provide you with a timeline. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t reflect the work that needs to be done."
With files from CTV News' Sarah Turnbull