Federal First Nations water strategy 'flawed': report

A report by the David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians raises questions about whether the federal Liberals can fulfil their pledge to lift all long-term water advisories in First Nations communities within five years.

Report questions whether government can lift water advisories within five years

A new report says the federal government needs to craft a streamlined process to help First Nations communities better address poor water quality issues in their communities. (Tim Graham)

A new report is questioning whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be able to keep his promise to address First Nations water treatment facilities.

During the election, the federal Liberals pledged to put an end to all long-term boil water advisories in First Nations communities within five years.

The government committed $1.8 billion to the effort in its last budget. But a new study by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians is giving the government's plan mixed reviews.

"Almost one year after the budget announcement, the process for attaining clean and safe drinking water for First Nations remains flawed," the report says.

The report looks at nine communities in Ontario where boil water advisories were in place for more than a year. It finds three in which advisories have been lifted, or are expected to be lifted within the government's five-year time frame, three in which it's uncertain that deadline can be met and three in which it's unlikely the five-year goal can be achieved.

The report cites several problems with the government's overall approach to providing clean water to First Nations communities. Chief among them is the time it takes for communities to win approval for new water treatment systems.

"From start to finish, First Nations drinking water projects often take between five and ten years to complete at a minimum, with delays related to funding, seasonality and shifts in political priorities being far too common," the report says.

"In the meantime, First Nations can live for decades with unsafe water."

'Systemic issues'

The report recommends the federal government work with First Nations to streamline the process for approving new projects. It also calls on Ottawa to provide more money to bands to operate and maintain water facilities.

"More careful consideration needs to be given to operations and management budgets to ensure water plants are sustainable over the long term," the report says.

"Even though we only looked at nine communities, the issues we raised, we feel, are systematic," said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation.

"We feel there needs to be an expedited process, there needs to be more First Nations decision making in the process and there needs to be greater transparency in how the federal government is tracking toward upholding its promise." 

According to the latest figures from Health Canada, 85 First Nations communities across Canada are facing a total of 130 drinking water advisories, 98 long-term and 32 short-term. That does not include communities in B.C. where a separate First Nations health authority tracks water quality.

The federal Liberals say 18 drinking water advisories have been lifted since they came to office. 

The federal government says it welcomes the report and intends to stick with its commitment to end long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities within five years. 

"Some of the projects identified in the report are actually close to completion and we hope to have good news for those communities in the coming weeks," said a spokesman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett in a statement.