Without timeline to resolve broken promise, feds still say lifting water advisories a 'top priority'
OTTAWA -- All drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada were supposed to be lifted this month, but with 58 still in place the federal government won’t commit to a new timeline for when every Indigenous person on reserve will be able to safely drink from the taps.
Indigenous Services Canada says that lifting all outstanding drinking water advisories remains a “top priority,” but other than vowing to put the work in “as quickly as possible,” the government won’t say whether it could be months or years before these advisories are resolved for good.
“It's not about putting another sort of arbitrary date,” Deputy Minister of Indigenous Services Christiane Fox said during a technical briefing with reporters.
“It is about the commitment to lift them all as quickly as we can. And that's really how the department is looking at this very important work and putting all the measures in place to do that effectively, and as quickly and safely as possible… and doing it in a way that is open and transparent to communities and to Canadians,” she said.
On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced that the federal government is launching a redesigned website where people can track the ongoing construction projects underway across Canada to finally see clean water flowing.
“Canadians, I think, in particular First Nations that are under long-term water advisories want to get as much information about what the plan is and, what's going on in their fellow communities,” Miller said. “The effort today is for Canadians to see what I see, and to give everyone as much information as possible as to the status of each community, as well as the work that's been done and the commitment of this government to get it done.”
The federal government continues to cite COVID-19 as an exacerbating factor in why it has not been able to fulfill this commitment, though as the Auditor General of Canada Karen Hogan noted in a recent report, while pandemic-related restrictions delayed progress on some projects, "many were already facing delays prior to the pandemic."
Hogan’s report highlighted that Indigenous Services Canada "did not provide adequate support to First Nations communities" to ensure they have access to safe drinking water. The report also noted that until the federal government addresses several underlying deficiencies with the water systems and make long-term improvements and funding commitments, First Nations communities in Canada will continue to not have reliable access to clean drinking water.
That audit found though that it may be “at least 2025” before long-term water improvements are in place in some communities, with the department expecting that the majority of the outstanding projects would be completed between 2022 and 2024.
"The Trudeau government continues to fail First Nation families when it comes to the systemic failure to deliver clean water on reserve. We have report after report documenting the systemic failures of the department and the need to put in place a credible plan. And yet the best thing that Minister Miller can come up with is the promise of a new web site? This is ridiculous,” said NDP MP and Indigenous youth critic Charlie Angus in a statement provided to CTV News.
To date a total of $3.69 billion has been committed towards eradicating all drinking water issues through 516 projects, the vast majority being upgrades to existing water treatment infrastructure. As of September 2020, $1.74 billion has been spent on these projects.
Indigenous Services Canada is aiming to use the coming spring and summer construction seasons to make progress on providing clean water to people who, in some cases, have gone many years without it.
Echoing what he said in December 2020—when the government conceded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 promise would be broken as there would be outstanding water advisories after March 2021— Miller said Wednesday that going forward the federal government is focusing on working in collaboration with First Nations on setting up long-term solutions as each community and their water needs is unique.
Conservative MP and Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal said a website is not a solution.
“For over a year, Conservatives have been asking the minister of Indigenous Services to look at alternate solutions to end long-term drinking water advisories. It’s unacceptable that any Canadian is without clean drinking water,” Vidal said in a statement. “Success isn’t measured by funding announcements and election promises, it’s measured by outcomes.”
Since the Liberals took over the file 101 long-term advisories have been lifted, with the departmental officials noting Wednesday that means 5,850 homes and 430 community buildings now have clean water. However, they didn’t put a number on how many homes and community facilities are still without clean water, years later.
As of now there are 38 communities where a total of 58 long-term drinking water advisories remain in place. Here’s how they break down across the country:
- In Ontario there are 26 communities affected by 44 long-term advisories.
- In Manitoba, there are four communities affected by four long-term advisories.
- In Saskatchewan there are six communities affected by eight long-term advisories.
- In British Columbia there are two communities affected by two long-term advisories.
“There's a plan for every other community,” Miller said.