Politics

Federal government vows again to end boil water advisories but offers no new target date

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recommitted the federal government Wednesday to its goal of lifting all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves — but didn't offer a timeline for completing the work. 

Ottawa launches new website to track progress on long-term drinking water advisories

A sign in Neskantaga First Nation, where people have been living with a long-term drinking water advisory for 26 years. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recommitted the federal government Wednesday to its goal of lifting all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves — but didn't offer a timeline for completing the work. 

With 58 active advisories remaining in 38 communities, the Liberals will miss a self-imposed deadline this month for lifting all long-term advisories.

Miller said that ensuring access to clean tap water for all First Nations communities remains a top government priority.

"We walked into 105 — as a government — 105 long-term advisories with absolutely zero plan to get them lifted. Today, we've lifted 101 and there's a plan for every other community," Miller said.

"Our commitment to lift all long-term drinking-water advisories on public systems on reserve remains firm."

Promise made, target missed

Before he was prime minister, Trudeau promised to lift all boil water advisories within five years of coming to office. 

CBC News reported last October that the government would miss its March 2021 target by years. Miller later acknowledged that missed target and pledged to spend more than $1.5 billion to finish the work.

In November 2015, there were 105 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations and another 58 have been added since. A total of 101 have been lifted, says Indigenous Services Canada. 

The department says it expects most of the remaining 58 advisories will be lifted by the end of this year and noted that COVID-19 continues to slow construction in some communities, especially those in remote areas that depend on deliveries by winter ice roads.

WATCH: Minister says new website will show status of First Nations boil-water advisories

Minister says new website will show status of First Nations boil-water advisories

8 months ago
2:36
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller explained the purpose of the new website to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday. 2:36

On Wednesday, Miller announced the launch of a new website, developed with an Indigenous firm called Animikii, to track the government's progress. Each community still on a long-term drinking water advisory will have its own web page on the new government website, with a detailed plan and progress reports.

"Canadians, in particular First Nations that are under long-term water advisories, want to get as much information about what the plan is and what's going on in their fellow communities," Miller said.

"The effort today is for Canadians to see what I see and to give every one as much information as possible as to the status of each community, as well as the work that's been done and the commitment of this government to get it done."

Chief Eric Redhead of Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba, which has been under a long-term drinking water advisory since December 2019, said the website won't help.

"It's just a website to justify the delay for the rest of Canadians and for themselves," Redhead said. 

"We deserve better as Canadian citizens."

The Liberal government has committed $3.5 billion to eliminating long-term drinking water advisories.

As part of its new communications strategy, Indigenous Services Canada could play a bigger role in helping some communities deal with contractors.

The new approach does not include any new money or a new deadline — nor will the government produce a list of 'bad actors' among contractors, as some have called for. The contracts belong to First Nations and the department says it doesn't want to impose solutions.

The department says it is looking at its policy on addressing long-term drinking water advisories closely and is open to re-examining it.

This graphic shows the number of active long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities by province, and the number of advisories that have been lifted since Nov. 2015. Source: Indigenous Services Canada (Rob Easton/CBC News)

New website comes after scathing auditor general report

Miller's renewed commitment comes just weeks after Auditor General Karen Hogan said Ottawa isn't doing enough to ensure people in First Nations have reliable access to safe drinking water.

Hogan found Indigenous Services Canada has been constrained by a funding policy that hasn't been updated in 30 years, and by the lack of a regulatory regime.

"I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved," Hogan said.

"Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don't believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021."

WATCH | Ottawa announces website to track government's progress on water advisories:

Ottawa further commits to ending First Nations’ boil-water advisories with website

8 months ago
2:01
After missing its March 2021 deadline, the federal government has doubled down on a commitment to end more than 50 long-term boil-water advisories in First Nations and launched a new website to publicly track its progress. 2:01

Hogan recommended Indigenous Services Canada work with First Nations to proactively identify and address deficiencies in water systems, with a focus on long-term solutions that prevent recurring problems. 

She also called on the government to set aside sufficient funding for operation and maintenance of water infrastructure, and to pass legislation that includes legal protections comparable to those in other communities in Canada.

Miller said the government is committed to doing both. He said the government is supporting a First Nations-led engagement process to review existing safe drinking water legislation and plans to co-develop legislation containing a new regulatory framework for safe drinking water on reserves.

"We're also making investments in expanding water infrastructure and operations and maintenance and training programs to make sure we never find ourselves in this situation again," said Miller.

Opposition MPs say it's not enough

Conservative MP Gary Vidal faulted the Liberals for missing their own March deadline. 

"Today's announcement is an acknowledgement that the Liberal government's lack of a plan is the reason for another broken promise — a website is not a strategy, nor a solution," said Vidal in a statement.

"Success isn't measured by funding announcements and election promises. It's measured by outcomes."

NDP MP Charlie Angus criticized the lack of a specific target date for lifting all advisories. 

"There's no timeline because they're not going to get this done and they know it," said Angus. "We need a timeline and a commitment to each community to say what is needed and how we're going to do it."

Angus called on the government to fix what he called structural problems, including chronic under-funding and bad planning.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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