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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Auditor General slams Ottawa for failing to ensure safe drinking water for First Nations

BY Ben Powless Mar 26, 2021

A new report by the Auditor General of Canada found that the federal government failed to live up to its 2015 campaign promises to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by the end of March 2021.

The report states that the government did not provide the necessary support for First Nations, despite spending $1.79 billion of the over $2 billion pledged to improve water and wastewater systems in First Nations communities. 

According to Auditor General Karen Hogan, the number of long-term drinking water advisories has declined from 160 to 60 since 2015. Half of those remaining advisories have been in place more than a decade, with some lasting over 20 years. 

“While there has been some progress to address and end boil-water advisories, currently more than 50 remain, and one is too many,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a statement. “I continue to urge the federal government to work together with First Nations to implement long-term solutions that will provide water certainty for our children and families.

Bellegarde called for real and ongoing funding for water treatment and distribution in First Nations communities. He also wants a little honesty from the feds: realistic timelines to achieving an end to boil-water advisories. The National Chief also pointed to the importance of clean water during a pandemic.

Hogan’s report identified an outdated funding model going back to 1987, which did not keep up with the costs of newer technology or the actual costs of operating and maintaining infrastructure. Many First Nations could not afford to make up the difference in funding, which led to many water systems gradually deteriorating.

It pointed to a salary gap of 30% for system operators in First Nations communities than elsewhere, noting that over a quarter of First Nations communities lacked a fully trained operator. The report also called for a regulatory regime for safe drinking water in First Nations communities, in consultation with First Nations. 

The report noted that government initiatives were expected to address the boil-water advisories in the remaining 60 communities starting in 2021 and as late as 2025. It also pointed to 15 communities where water problems were resolved with interim measures. 

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller responded by noting $3.5 billion has been invested in “supporting access to clean water” in Indigenous communities. The ministry also noted that Covid-19 had delayed completion of water infrastructure projects.  

In a statement, Miller said the government will “work with First Nations to conduct performance inspections of water systems annually, and asset condition assessments every three years, to identify deficiencies. We will work with communities to address those deficiencies, prevent recurring advisories and invest in long-term solutions.”

In a tacit admission its plan wasn’t working, the Liberal government in December announced an additional $1.5 billion in funding for clean drinking water, including $616 million for daily operations and maintenance, $553 million for water and wastewater infrastructure, and $309 million to lift all remaining long-term drinking water advisories.

“In 2015, this government began working with First Nations communities to improve access to safe drinking water. We will not stop until all long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserves are lifted and all First Nations communities on reserves have reliable access to clean and safe drinking water now and into the future,” Miller said at the time.

Leslie Michelson, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said that “100% of water and wastewater operations and maintenance costs – up from 80% – will be covered based on the operations and maintenance funding formula. This funding will enable First Nations communities to better sustain over the long term the approximately 1,200 water and wastewater systems on reserves.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.