The Sunday Edition

Michael's Essay — Contaminated water on First Nations reserves is a national shame

"Various governments going back decades have postponed dealing with water and sewage problems on Canadian reserves. Or just plain ignored them. While governments have insisted that clean water was a priority, the spending didn't match the rhetoric."
"Various governments going back decades have postponed dealing with water and sewage problems on Canadian reserves. Or just plain ignored them." (Getty Images/Flickr RF)
Listen3:13

Here we go again.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer is an independent spending watchdog whose mandate is to provide the House Of Commons and the Senate with financial analysis of government budgets.

On Thursday, it reported that government spending to provide clean drinking water on Canada's reserves by 2021 is falling short. 

The Liberal government is spending only 70 per cent of what is needed to end boil-water advisories on reserves.

The report says it is going to take a minimum of $3.2 billion in capital investment to bring reserve water systems up to the standards of non-Indigenous communities.

The reason? Various governments going back decades have postponed dealing with water and sewage problems on Canadian reserves. Or just plain ignored them.

While governments have insisted that clean water was a priority, the spending didn't match the rhetoric. 

Efforts to provide accessible, clean drinking water were chronically underfunded.

In some cases, governments actually cut back on spending to improve drinking water.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett studies water samples in Neskantaga First Nation. The community has been under a boil water advisory for 22 years. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Under the previous Harper government, spending on water and sewage infrastructure fell from $377 million to $286 million.

It is difficult for most Canadians to imagine living without potable water. How do you cook for a family or bathe children if the water isn't safe?

As of the end of October, there were 100 long-term drinking water advisories in 102 First Nations communities.

Nearly 75 per cent of water systems on reserves are categorized as high- or medium-risk.

The historical lack of action on the water problem has hurt our reputation internationally.

Last year, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch criticized Canada for violating the rights of Indigenous people to have access to clean drinking water.

Charlie Angus, the NDP member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay has been banging the drum for clean water on reserves since he entered the House of Commons in 2004.

It was Mr. Angus who asked the Parliamentary Budget Officer to investigate government spending on water and sewage infrastructure.

In light of the report, Mr. Angus has one question: "Is the government going to follow up with its promise? Yes or no."

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says her new department will deal with First Nations water, health and suicide crises. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
The Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says, yes, the government is "absolutely steadfast" in fulfilling its promise to get rid of boil water advisories by 2021.

Everybody knows that money is tight and that there are hundreds of priority claims on government spending.

But try to think of something more important than providing everybody in the country with clean drinking water. I can't.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.