Indigenous Services minister acknowledges Liberals won’t meet promised drinking water target

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller confirmed today that the Liberal government will not meet its commitment to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021.

At a press conference in Ottawa, Miller took full responsibility for the broken promise and pledged to spend more than $1.5 billion to finish the work.

“This was an ambitious deadline from the get-go,” Miller said. “While there have been many reasons for the delay, I want to state as clearly as possible that, ultimately, I bear the responsibility for this and I have the … duty to get this done.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised to end all long-term boil water advisories within five years during the 2015 campaign

It was the first major promise on the Indigenous reconciliation file, which became one of the central goals of the Liberals’ governing agenda. At the time, the Trudeau government said it would meet the target by March 2021.

“What communities want is not an Ottawa-imposed deadline. It’s a long-term commitment for access to clean water,” Miller said.

In October, CBC News surveyed all communities on the long-term drinking water advisory list maintained by Indigenous Services Canada.

More than a dozen First Nations said their projects would not be completed by the promised deadline. Five communities said a permanent fix would take years.

The Trudeau government has helped lift 97 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations since 2015, according to Indigenous Services Canada. Currently, 59 advisories are still in place in 41 communities.

Miller said another 20 advisories could be lifted by the end of December and that by spring 2021, the number of advisories remaining could shrink to 12. 

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Indigenous Services Minister assures reporters the federal government has a stronger grasp on the water system needs of Indigenous communities now than in 2015. 2:16

Since forming government, the Liberals have spent more than $1.65 billion of the $2.19 billion they set aside to build and repair water and wastewater infrastructure, and to manage and maintain existing systems on reserves.

The $1.5 billion proposed in Monday’s fiscal update is in addition to that $2.19 billion.

“Today, we are providing sustained funding in the spirit of partnership,” said Miller. “We’re listening to communities and we want to let them know that our government is going to be there for the long run.”

Funding for repairs, training and ongoing maintenance

The new money is aimed at helping First Nations in three key areas.

The first area is ongoing support for daily operations and maintenance of water infrastructure on reserves, to help keep that infrastructure in good condition even after long-term drinking water advisories are lifted. The money earmarked for this — $616.3 million over six years, with $114.1 million per year ongoing — will also fund training for water treatment plant operators and help communities better retain qualified workers. 

The second is continued funding for water and wastewater infrastructure on reserves: $553.4 million to prevent future drinking water advisories.

And finally, $309.8 million of the total will pay for work halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other project delays. The pandemic caused some First Nation communities to close their borders to contractors and temporarily stop work on improving their water systems.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the proposed new funding. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations called the proposed new funding a move in the right direction, but warned more resources may be required in future budgets to lift all water advisories.

“Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right,” Bellegarde said.

“It’s not right that in a rich country like Canada, you still can’t turn on the taps for potable water.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the new commitment is a recognition that the government initially low-balled the amount of money it would take to address water advisories on reserves. 

“The government has recognized that they can’t keep doing this as a publicity exercise,” Angus said. “So that money will go a long way.”

In 2017, the parliamentary budget officer found the federal government was spending only 70 per cent of what was needed to eliminate boil water advisories in First Nations communities.

Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal said it’s clear “there is no intent to meet the 2021 target.

“We know this is going to be an ongoing challenge.”

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