As part of its goal to end long-term boil water advisories for First Nations reserves, the federal government has added nearly 250 more drinking water systems to its list of those eligible for public monies, meaning it will have to address many more advisories than it originally intended.
In the past federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to end all such advisories by March 2021 to finally deliver clean drinking water for all First Nations peoples.
While progress has been made in the first two years of government, the list of long-term advisories still stands at 67 — a number that increased to 91 on Tuesday as a result of the new systems receiving federal supports.
These systems are ones that are considered "public" — in that they operate at fire halls, community or healing centres and other such buildings on reserve — but weren't previously see as the domain of the federal government.
Thus, a total of 1,047 drinking water systems will now eligible for supports from Indigenous Services Canada, the five-month old department created by the government to better provide services to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.
Despite the additions, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said the Liberals will still meet their intended goal of ending these water advisories in the same timeframe. Not only will they stick to the March 2021 completion date, but Philpott said they are committed to "accelerating" the pace of construction and renovation for affected water systems.
"I want to reiterate ... we have been very clear with the department, we must get this done, we are firm on the commitment that the prime minister has made and we will get the work done," Philpott told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.
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The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) warned in a December report that the federal government was simply not spending enough to put an end to the advisories, estimating it had allocated only 70 per cent of the needed funds.
Philpott said two-thirds of the $2 billion allocated to address water systems in Budget 2016 remains unspent. There is another pool of money, some $4 billion that is allocated to Indigenous infrastructure writ large, that could also be tapped. She said "any additional resources required" will be made available to accomplish their goal.
She said money will be rolled out at a faster rate over the next few years so that the figure drops from 91 advisories to 72 later this year, 65 in 2019, 53 in 2020 and zero by March 2021.
42 of the 91 advisories still have no scheduled completion date. "Looking forward to 2021, some projects are still in the design phase or do not yet have a full construction schedule," a background document supplied by the department reads. "In these instances, March 2021 is the placeholder for any final completion date until any earlier completion date is confirmed."
"The end of the curve is steep," Philpott acknowledged.
Since 2015, 40 boil water advisories were lifted but 26 others were added to the list.
'I applaud the federal government'
Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Chief Donald Maracle, who represents a band which controls the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, a large reserve of some 2,700 people east of Belleville, Ont., welcomed news that four water systems in his community have been added to the long-term boil water advisory list.
These systems were first identified as problematic by Health Canada back in 2008.
"The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem and that there needs to be a solution and I applaud the federal government wholeheartedly for putting the communities on the list ... hopefully the money will come to correct these issues," he said in an interview with CBC News.
"Safe drinking water is the cornerstone of public health, it does need to be corrected for the health and safety of people who live in the communities."
While they just opened a $30-million water treatment plant, only half of Tyendinaga residents have access to clean drinking water as the four other systems are in a state of disrepair or are contaminated.
There are no water lines to pump water from the new facility to the 575 homes that are currently on a well. Of those 575 homes, 47 per cent can only access contaminated groundwater and thus have to rely on bottled water for daily activities.