Thunder Bay

New funding for First Nations water projects an 'important step' minister says

Canada’s infrastructure minister says new funding for clean water, wastewater and storm water projects announced last week by the province and federal government won’t solve all of the long-standing water infrastructure problems in First Nation communities, but it’s an important step.

37 First Nations, including around a dozen in the northwest, are receiving a share of the $69.5 million

The funding announcement comes around three weeks after the auditor general of Canada released a report that was highly critical of Canada's efforts to end drinking water advisories in First Nations. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

Canada's infrastructure minister says new funding for clean water, wastewater and storm water projects announced last week by the province and federal government won't solve all of the long-standing water infrastructure problems in First Nation, but it's an important step.

The two governments jointly announced $69.5 million in funding for projects in 37 First Nations, including around a dozen in northwestern Ontario. 

Northwest Angle 33 and Onigaming will receive money for water treatment plant upgrades. Grassy Narrows will receive funds to replace sewage pumping stations. And Seine River First Nation will receive money to upgrade its water treatment distribution system.

The announcement comes around three weeks after the auditor general of Canada released a report that was highly critical of Canada's efforts to end drinking water advisories in First Nations.

Auditor general finds systemic problems with funding

It said that the government had failed to meet its self-imposed deadline of March 31, 2021, to end the advisories, and it had failed to address systemic issues that contributed to them. 

"It has been a challenge," Catherine McKenna said. "But when we came to power, there were 105 long-term boil water advisories. Ninety-nine have lifted, and I think [Indigenous services] minister [Mark] Miller has been frank; there is still work to do."

A key criticism contained in the auditor general's report was that Indigenous Services Canada had failed to update its funding formula for the maintenance and operation of water systems since the formula was created 30 years ago. ISC had simply adjusted dollar amounts for inflation without taking into account new technologies or the actual cost increases associated with operations.

This, the auditor general said, led to a system in which the government had no way of knowing whether the amount of funding it was providing to communities was meeting its stated goal of covering 80 per cent of maintenance and operation costs.

A different funding model

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a statement earlier this month that funding actually falls below 50 per cent in many NAN communities. 

Asked how she could be certain that the funding announced Thursday was actually sufficient to cover the true costs of the projects, McKenna said that the Investing in Canada plan from which the money derives does not rely on ISC's funding formula and instead funds projects put forward by the communities themselves.

"This is a very different program," McKenna said. "This is really coming from them. It's a different funding model."

McKenna described the job of properly upgrading and maintaining First Nations' water infrastructure as a complex task that requires both funding and true partnerships with the First Nations involved. 

Closing the infrastructure gap

"It's decades of government neglect and under funding that have created the challenges in these communities, and our role is to support First Nations," she said. "It's certainly not to dictate how they do things. It's to make sure that funding is in place, but it's not just funding."

Asked how she planned to address the long-term water infrastructure needs of Indigenous communities so that they could address issues like housing shortages and economic development, McKenna pointed to the announcement last week of the Indigenous Community Infrastructure Initiative through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which will fund up to 80 per cent of the capital costs of green infrastructure, clean power, broadband, public transit and trade and transportation projects in Indigenous communities. 

"These are all critically important steps," McKenna said.  "They aren't going to solve everything in the immediate term, but we are making good progress in addressing the infrastructure deficit and also laying the conditions that we have true partnerships with Indigenous people. Because that's the only way, this is going to work."

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