Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller confirmed the Trudeau government will not meet its pledge to lift all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada by March 2021.
Miller said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to delays in upgrading or completing water systems and also created supply chain problems. He said some First Nations reserves have restricted who is allowed into the communities to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“While there have been many reasons for the delay, I want to state as clearly as possible that ultimately I bear the responsibility for this and I have the responsibility and duty to get this done,” Miller told reporters Wednesday.
Indigenous Services Canada has said that 97 boil-water advisories have been lifted since 2016, while 59 remain in place in 41 communities. The department also said that “at least” 22 existing drinking water advisories will remain in effect past the deadline of March 21.
In a fall economic statement Monday, the Liberal government pledged to invest $1.5 billion this year to work toward lifting all long-term drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities, on top of $2.1 billion already committed since 2016.
Miller said the money is going to support three key areas to ensure daily operations and maintenance of water infrastructure on reserves, and prevent future water advisories.
The funding will include $616.3 million over six years to help train water treatment plant operators and help retain qualified workers, while $553.4 million will go to help prevent future drinking water advisories, and $309.8 million will pay for work halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other project delays.
“Partnering with First Nations, we’ve collectively taken a number of important actions that have improved drinking water on reserve. But let’s be clear, this is a process, not a single event,” Miller said. “Lifting a drinking water advisory is a multifaceted process, a process that requires long term and stable and reliable investments and dedication.
“This has been said to us loud and clear by our First Nations partners.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to end all long-term boil-water advisories within five years during the 2015 campaign, but indicated in October that this commitment likely wouldn’t be met amid the ongoing pandemic.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the broken promise from Ottawa was “disappointing and disheartening” for communities that have been under boil-water advisories for decades.
“It’s something that we have lived with for a long time now,” Fiddler said, adding that he was encouraged the minister acknowledged a need for sustained investment after projects are completed.
He said that although some First Nations have been diligently following public health guidelines amid COVID-19, it’s been hard for others who don’t have access to clean drinking water.
“We have been raising these issues for a long time now, even before the pandemic and it’s something we had hoped they would have addressed,” Fiddler said.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said the Liberal government has “broken trust” with First Nations people of Canada and “knowingly low-balled” the amount of money it would take to address water advisories on reserves.
“They bragged time and time again about building a new relationship where every community had access to clean water,” he said. “Now with the people of Neskantaga being forced to live in hotels as refugees from their own community they are admitting that they never had the funds on the table to finish the job. First Nation people deserve better.”
The decision to back away from the commitment to end boil-water advisories comes as over 250 residents of Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario, which has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years, were forced to be evacuated from their homes following the discovery of an oily sheen in its reservoir.
Residents are still being housed in Thunder Bay and have been calling on the federal government to restore 24-hour access to water and help them return home.
Fiddler said it’s still unclear when Neskantaga residents will be allowed to go home as 14 days of water tests must occur before anyone can return. He said several problems have been discovered at the water treatment plant, which have prevented the tests from being completed.
“There is a lot of frustration with the lack of a workable plan to fix the problems there,” he said. “We need to get them assurance that there is date when they can go home.”
“Being stuck in a hotel room for over a month now would be frustrating for any family.”