Too many First Nations lack clean drinking water and it's Ottawa's fault, says auditor general

·6 min read
Too many First Nations lack clean drinking water and it's Ottawa's fault, says auditor general
A sign is held up as people stand outside Queen's Park in Toronto on Nov. 6, 2020, in solidarity with the Neskantaga First Nation where residents were evacuated over tainted water a month earlier. (Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A sign is held up as people stand outside Queen's Park in Toronto on Nov. 6, 2020, in solidarity with the Neskantaga First Nation where residents were evacuated over tainted water a month earlier. (Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The federal government has not done enough to ensure people in First Nations communities have reliable access to safe drinking water, says the federal auditor general.

In an audit report tabled in Parliament today, Auditor General Karen Hogan said many First Nations will continue to live without access to clean water without long-term solutions to address deficiencies in their water systems.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed during the 2015 election to eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems on First Nations reserves by March 31, 2021.

The auditor general found that since the prime minister made that commitment, 100 advisories have been lifted. But 60 remained in effect in 41 First Nations communities as of November 2020, and some communities won't be able to get clean water out of their taps for many years.

"I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved," Hogan told a press conference in Ottawa today.

"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 | AG has strong words for Ottawa on First Nations drinking water:

The findings are in one of five audit reports issued by Hogan today. One of those reports raises concerns about Transport Canada's lack of progress in ensuring safety oversight of railway companies, while another concluded Canada's national shipbuilding strategy has been slow to deliver new ships.

The auditor's review of the First Nations drinking water crisis found Indigenous Services Canada's efforts to lift boil water advisories have been constrained by a funding policy that hasn't been updated in 30 years, and by the lack of a regulatory regime that includes legal protections comparable with other communities in Canada.

A sign in Neskantaga First Nation calls out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for failing to end the community's 25-year-long boil water advisory.
A sign in Neskantaga First Nation calls out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for failing to end the community's 25-year-long boil water advisory.

Delays predate COVID-19: AG

Last fall, a CBC News survey determined the Liberal government would miss its March 2021 deadline to lift all long-term boil water advisories — something that Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledged in December 2020.

The audit found that COVID-19 pushed the timeline back on some water projects, but Indigenous Services Canada was already behind schedule by the end of March 2020 — before the pandemic hit.

The problems persist despite the Liberal government allocating over $3 billion to resolve the issue.

Hogan recommended the department 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 commit sufficient funding to operations and maintenance of water infrastructure and pass legislation that includes legal protections comparable with other communities in Canada.

"Until these solutions are implemented, First Nations communities will continue to experience challenges in accessing safe drinking water," the report said.

WATCH | Indigenous Services minister responds to AG report criticizing First Nations water plan:

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the federal government welcomes the auditor general's report and agrees with her recommendations. He said the government is committed to funding 100 per cent of the operations and maintenance costs for water and wastewater on reserves.

He said there are project plans in place to lift all remaining boil water advisories, but he couldn't say when he expects them all to be lifted.

"Despite the challenges, we're confident we're on the right path," said Miller.

Opposition politicians slammed the Liberal government for what they called a lack of progress.

"Government success isn't measured by funding announcements, it's measured by outcomes," said Conservative MP Gary 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."

"Indigenous communities are no better off now after six years of the Liberals being in government," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Shipbuilding strategy slow to replace federal fleet

The auditor general's review of the national shipbuilding strategy — implemented in 2010 to manufacture combat and non-combat ships for the Canadian Navy and the Coast Guard — found that it has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

"[The federal departments] did not manage the National Shipbuilding Strategy in a manner that supported timely renewal of the federal large vessel fleet during the audit period, but they did address issues that threatened the future renewal of the federal fleet," Hogan concluded.

The audit was conducted between Jan. 1, 2018 and Jan. 30, 2020. Only two of four ships scheduled for delivery during that period arrived, but both were late, the audit found. The delivery dates for some other vessels also were pushed back during the audit period — in some cases by several years.

Design and construction delays have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of procuring the ships and threaten to leave Canada ill-equipped to defend and patrol its waters, Hogan warned.

"The late delivery of ships for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard could put at risk Canada's ability to perform critical operations," the auditor's report said.

"These operations support the navy's peace, defence and security missions in Canada and around the world and the coast guard's search and rescue missions, icebreaking and other operations to ensure safety in Canadian waters."

Since the audit period, the COVID-19 pandemic has further delayed ship construction. Irving Shipbuilding and Vancouver Shipyards were forced to either temporarily shut down operations or operate at reduced capacities for periods of time because of public health restrictions.

The auditor general's report comes one day after Canada's budget watchdog predicted that construction of the navy's new frigate fleet could cost at least $77.3 billion — a number that could rise even higher if the frequently-delayed program faces any more setbacks.

Other findings

Among the other findings released by the auditor general on Thursday:

  • The Canada Revenue Agency was praised for its management of the Canada Child Benefit program, which the audit found paid out $24 billion promptly and to the right people during the fiscal year 2019–2020. But the auditors found that the government in some cases kept making payments based on outdated information — and the program's assumption that female parents are the primary caregivers isn't always correct, causing problems for some families.

  • A one-time top-up payment of $300 per child to help families during the pandemic, announced in May 2020, paid out $88 million to almost 265,000 higher-income families who wouldn't normally qualify for the benefit.

  • Transport Canada was criticized for failing to implement a number of recommendations included in a 2013 audit of its safety management practices. The most recent audit found that Transport Canada's checks on rail safety have improved to focus more on riskier areas and to better follow up on safety deficiencies in rail companies' practices. The department has not, however, examined the companies' safety management systems for effectiveness, according to the auditors — only for whether they tick the necessary regulatory boxes.

  • Staff who work in federal departments that buy complex information technology systems need better training. Public Services and Procurement Canada, Shared Services Canada, the Treasury Board and Employment and Social Development Canada are adopting "agile" procurement models that involve a lot more back-and-forth with potential vendors — something for which the officials doing the procuring aren't always equipped. The auditors also concluded procurement agencies should make more use of data analytics to spot cases of potential bid-rigging and other problems.