Ottawa's promise to fix First Nations water crisis still falling short: report

The federal Liberal government’s promises on fixing long-standing First Nations water woes are still falling short, according to a new report released by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Suzuki Foundation says there's been some improvement, but more work still needed on funding, regulations

Kavin Redsky, a water plant operator at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in northwestern Ontario, prepares to treat water from the lake with chlorine in 2015. The community is scheduled to get a new water treatment plant in 2021 following the construction of a road linking the community to the Trans-Canada Highway. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The federal Liberal government gets mostly "glass half-empty" ratings on its work toward fixing long-standing First Nations water woes, in a new report released by the David Suzuki Foundation.

The report, titled Reconciling Promises and Reality: Clean Drinking Water for First Nations, is the second study released by the David Suzuki Foundation on Ottawa's promise to end long-term First Nation water advisories by 2021.

The David Suzuki Foundation is a national non-profit organization that does research and policy analysis on environmental rights, biodiversity and solutions to climate change.

This year's report, which will be unveiled Thursday afternoon in Vancouver during the Assembly of First Nations' water symposium, found that despite some progress, Ottawa still has some distance to go before meeting its promise.

"The right to clean water has been identified as an essential and basic human right," said Alaya Boisvert, public engagement manager with the David Suzuki Foundation.

"In a country as wealthy as Canada, home to 20 per cent of the world's fresh water, we can and we must fulfil the promise to ensure everyone has clean water no matter where they live."

New legislation, regulations needed

The report recommends Ottawa not only keep its focus on ending long-term water advisories but also on the broader issues that continue to perpetuate the crisis.

The report said Ottawa should adopt First Nation-led models for fixing water problems, implement source water project plans and ensure it is transparent about the money it is allocating for long-underfunded First Nations water systems.

The report notes that the federal government committed $1.8 billion in the 2016 budget to deal with First Nation water systems, but the Parliamentary Budget Officer found in 2017 that the money accounted for only 75 per cent of the actual need.

The report also calls on the government to co-create legislation and regulations governing First Nation water systems.

The federal government began consultations last year on improving or replacing the much-criticized Safe Water Drinking for First Nations Act which was passed by the previous Conservative government.

Small steps when strides required 

The report highlights the work by First Nations in Atlantic Canada to create a water authority as an example Ottawa should aim to co-replicate with other First Nations.

"Overall, our assessments indicate that while small steps are being taken by the federal government to address the First Nations drinking water crisis in Canada, they fall short of the strides that are needed for this government's promises to become reality," said the report.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott speaks during a news conference in Ottawa last month announcing her department's progress on various files, including improving water systems in First Nations. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott last month unveiled the federal government's update on its work to ending long-term water advisories and stated efforts were still on track to meet the commitment by 2021.

Philpott also said the department had widened the catchment for drinking water systems eligible for government support to 1,047.

The David Suzuki Foundation report said it rated the government's performance on 14 indicators based on 12 recommendations issued in its 2017 report.

The government's performance on each indicator was measured by four categories: "glass full," indicating significant progress; "glass half-full," indicating some meaningful progress; "glass half-empty," indicating little progress; and "glass empty," indicating no progress registered on the issue.

The report awarded its lone "glass empty" assessment to Ottawa's failure in developing legally binding regulations for First Nations water systems. It also marked the government with a "glass half-empty" for its work co-developing new legislation to govern First Nations water systems.

Glass remains mostly half-empty

Overall, the report awarded seven "glass half-empty" ratings to the government's performance on issues like ensuring First Nations water treatment operators get the same pay as their municipal counterparts, implementing source water protection plans and matching its policies with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which includes articles on water.

Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett tries out one of the communal water stations during a visit to Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario on April 15, 2016, where she was told 80 per cent of homes do not have running water. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

The report also awarded six "glass half-full" ratings on its work sharing updated information on progress in its efforts to end long-term water advisories, creating funding flexibility that responds to the needs of each community and improving its priority ranking framework for water projects.

The government received no "glass full" marks.

"I think the fact that there are hundreds of First Nations that are facing a situation where they can't drink the water, where they can't bathe their children in the water, where they can't have a cup of tea, is totally unacceptable and it's a long-standing injustice that needs to be redressed," said Boisvert.

MORE FROM CBC INDIGENOUS: Ontario law society investigating firm's handling of dying residential school survivor's claim

MORE FROM CBC INDIGENOUS: Next phase of Shoal Lake 40's 'Freedom Road' construction set to begin