While the federal Liberal government vowed in its 2015 election campaign to end water advisories in Indigenous communities by the end of March 2021, a recent report from the auditor general says they haven’t taken action to make this happen.
Auditor General Karen Hogan says 100 water advisories have been lifted since the Liberals came to power, but 60 remain across 41 communities.
“I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved,” said Hogan, who presented her report to parliament in late-February. “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.”
She attributes this situation in part to an outdated funding model that hasn’t been changed in 30 years, as well as the lack of a regulatory regime similar to those in settler communities.
“Until these solutions are implemented, First Nations communities will continue to experience challenges in accessing safe drinking water,” Hogan’s report reads.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, whose government has contributed $3 billion to address the issue, acknowledged in December that the government would not meet its target. He says he accepts the report’s findings and that the government is committed to fully funding operating and maintenance costs.
Although COVID-19 is to blame for some of the delays, Hogan’s report says that delays were apparent in early-March 2020.
Miller didn’t provide a concrete date by which the AG’s recommendations will be fully implemented.
“While there are some plans in place or under development, those solutions won’t be in place until at least 2025; that’s a very long time for a community to go without safe drinking water,” said Hogan.
In a statement, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called on the government to make ending water advisories an urgent priority.
“Access to safe, clean water is more important now than ever to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep us all safe,” said Bellegarde.
“I want to see significant and sustained investments in water treatment and water distribution for First Nations, a renewed commitment by the federal government to end boil water advisories within realistic timelines and real investments in First Nations infrastructure to close the infrastructure gap by 2030.”
Chief Bellegarde highlighted the importance of water to Indigenous people, not only as a source of sustenance but spiritually.
“Water is sacred to First Nations and key to the health and well-being of all living things,” he said.
“We must see the human right to safe drinking water prioritized by our government partners. Sustained funding, including investments in operations and maintenance that reflect the true costs, not formula-driven numbers, is the only way to address long-standing issues and ensure safe drinking water for our people and nations.”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says the AG’s findings demonstrate the Liberals’ flakiness when it comes to upholding Indigenous rights.
“There is no excuse that anyone in our country doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, particularly the first people of this land,” he said.
This sentiment was also expressed by Conservative Indigenous Services critic Gary Vidal.
“Government success isn’t measured by funding announcements, it’s measured by outcomes, and it is unacceptable that any Canadian is without clean drinking water,” said Vidal.
“The Liberals like to make eye-catching promises in order to win elections but their consistent failure to deliver on these promises is undermining trust and hurting reconciliation.”
The water advisories are based on quality tests and fall into three categories — boil water advisories, which require the water to be boiled for consumption, and use in cooking and cleaning; do not consume advisories, which means the water can only be used for adult bathing; and do not use. Most advisories fall into the boil category, according to Hogan’s audit.
According to reporting from APTN, 15 percent of First Nations homes depend on water delivered to them in trucks, while thousands rely on cisterns attached to their homes.
That’s because the government’s $1.74 billion dedicated to water infrastructure in First Nations communities doesn’t include enough funds for the pipelines needed to bring water from the treatment plants directly to people’s homes.
Perry Mcleod, a water treatment plant operator in Peepeekisis First Nation in Saskatchewan, said he’s found dead mice, snakes and a car battery in water cisterns he’s cleaned.
“They’re always testing positive for E. coli and bacterias and whatever,” said Mcleod. “There’s standing boil water advisories on all the cisterns and we’re never going to lift it, until we get water trucked, or our water piped to every household.”
Jeremy Appel is a LJI reporter for Alberta Native News.
Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News