Indigenous water solutions: 2 steps forward, 1 step back

New numbers show that 71 First Nations communities have not been able to drink their water for more than a year despite 18 such water advisories having been lifted since November 2015.

'We will get there,' Bennett says of 5-year plan to provide drinkable tap water to all communities

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett studies water samples in Neskantaga First Nation, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 1995. Bennett still has 71 long-term drinking water advisories despite seeing 18 such warnings lifted since the Liberals came to power. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Cleaning up drinking water in Indigenous communities appears to be a case of two steps forward, one step back, according to new government numbers.

There are 71 long-term drinking water advisories — in existence for a year or more — in First Nations communities across Canada.

Since November 2015, 18 such warnings have been lifted, allowing the communities to drink their tap water.

But 12 advisories have been added, according to figures provided by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. 

It's an example of the complex, tough task facing the Trudeau government, which has pledged to have all long-term drinking water advisories lifted within five years.

"I don't think you get anywhere without a hard target, and this is our hard target and we are committed to it," said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett in an interview with CBC News. 

Bennett, who served as opposition critic for the portfolio before she was appointed minister in November 2015, describes the current state of drinking water in Indigenous communities as "totally unacceptable." 

"We need to fix this," she said.  "A lot of Canadians have been helping with water projects in Africa and all around the world and they had no idea that there were places in Canada where you couldn't just turn on the tap and drink the water, and so I think the consciousness has been raised." 

We will get there because it is so important as a commitment to quality of life.— Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett

Last year's federal budget earmarked $1.8 billion over five years to help First Nations communities build new on-reserve water infrastructure. That money will also help ensure facilities are run correctly and train water system operators. 

The budget also included over $141 million in new funding for water monitoring and testing.

But opposition critics say the Liberals are over-optimistic about their deadline to solve a decades-old problem.

"In my view that's not fast enough," said NDP Indigenous affairs critic Romeo Saganash. "They've been here for a year and a half, almost. And at that race and that pace, I don't think we will get to the finish line with the remaining three and a half years."

Drinking water advisories

Drinkable tap water has not been available for at least a year in 71 Aboriginal communities. (iStock)

The latest numbers from Indigenous Affairs on drinking water advisories in place for a year or more:

  • Current long-term drinking water advisories: 71
  • Advisories lifted since November 2015: 18
  • Advisories added as of this month: 12

Long- and short-term advisories tracked by Health Canada and B.C. First Nations Health Authority: 150

​Source: INAC/Health Canada/B.C. First Nations Health Authority

Conservative Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod agreed, adding that the Harper government actually spent more on Indigenous water. It provided more than $3 billion over eight years for its water action plan.

"They're not spending as much money as we did to solve a very important problem. And I don't actually think they're going to get the job done without significant dollar investment and significant change in how they do it," said McLeod.

Update planned for this week

But Bennett says she's releasing an update this week to show what her department has done and how she hopes to reach the five-year goal.

She describes the Liberal approach as "bottom-up" — talking to the communities first about their needs.

"What is the plan they want? What is the source water they want? What kind of a plant would they like?" she asks.

"It's not just building the system; we have to maintain the system and making sure that young people are trained to manage the water plant in their community."

Federal bureaucracy

Many First Nations communities complain that it takes too long — from five to 10 years — to solve drinking water problems. They blame a cumbersome federal bureaucracy.

Bennett admits that one of her tasks is to simplify the process.

As the opposition critic, she heard from many communities that thought they were about to get a new water treatment system, only to find out the government had decided to order another feasibility study, delaying everything. 

"These setbacks are devastating to communities, and so it is in good faith we are working with these communities with the very best technical advice they can access," said Bennett.

"It really is our department working with the community in a way that is honest and straightforward." 

Even with 18 more communities now with clean water, Bennett still has 71 complicated situations to solve.

"We are measuring as we go. We will get there because it is so important as a commitment to quality of life, to dignity and to fairness, and we're going to get this done."