Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The coronavirus pandemic and the lack of a full understanding of infrastructure needs on reserve means the federal government will not be meeting its March 2021 deadline of lifting all long-term boil water advisories on First Nations.
Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller announced today in Ottawa that about a dozen First Nations will still need to boil water despite a Liberal election pledge in 2015 the water problems would be remediated in five years.
He also announced $1.5 billion in additional funding to continue work with water and wastewater on reserves.
“We will get clean water to Indigenous communities thanks to this new investment”… By the spring 2021 deadline “there will be roughly a dozen communities for varying reasons that will not be in a position to lift their long-term water advisories. This is a recommitment to them,” said Miller.
He said that the March 2021 deadline had been set without the government fully understanding the depth of the issues and the complexity of the work that needed to be done to meet its election pledge.
“This was an ambitious deadline from the get-go,” he said, and defended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for setting it. He said Trudeau should be praised for making the commitment to fix a problem that for some reserves had been decades old.
Addressing the issue of safe drinking water is “a process not a single event,” said Miller.
The multi-faceted process includes detecting and identifying the cause of the problems; feasibility studies and design; construction planning; and stable and reliable investments.
He said it also included working in partnership with First Nations leadership and going with the priorities set by the communities.
Miller said the COVID-19 pandemic presented problems with continuing that work and resulted in an entire construction season being lost. In some cases, First Nations restricted access to their communities as a means to protect the health and safety of their members. Because of that construction crews and supplies could not make it on to the reserve.
But COVID19 wasn’t the only reason why work was stalled in some communities. Short and warmer winters made winter roads inaccessible and it was difficult to hire and retain staff in some of the more remote and isolated communities.
“If anything COVID-19 has further magnified existing socioeconomic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and the pandemic has not in anyway changed our commitment to continue working with Indigenous peoples toward closing those gaps. It’s posed new challenges and obstacles. It has caused delays in lifting long-term drinking water advisories in some First Nations communities,” said Miller.
To that end, he announced a targeted $309.8 million to respond to project delays, including those due to COVID-19.
That figure was among the $1.5 billion in additional investments for safe drinking water announced today. Funds include $553.4 million to continue water and wastewater infrastructure; and $616.3 million over six years and $114.1 million per year ongoing thereafter to increase support for operations and maintenance of water and wastewater infrastructure.
The delay in meeting the target deadline does not take away from the work ISC has undertaken since 2016, stressed Miller.
“I know a lot of work remains, but the progress made cannot be erased,” he said.
In 2016, $2.19 billion was committed to First Nations to build and repair water and wastewater infrastructure and support effective management and maintenance of water systems on reserves.
Of that, $1.65 billion has been invested in 626 water and wastewater projects in 581 First Nations communities, serving approximately 462,000 people. Ninety-seven long-term drinking water advisories were lifted and 171 long-term advisories were prevented.
Miller anticipated another 20 boil water advisories would be lifted by the end of December.
“What we’re saying to communities today, we’re there for the long term. This isn’t a deadline we’ll just walk away (from) and somehow our consciences are clear. Quite the opposite. This is a much deeper commitment to walking along the path of ensuring that communities have safe access to clean, reliable drinking water for the long term,” said Miller.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.