The Liberal government will miss a target it set during the 2015 federal election campaign to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021 — in some cases by several years — according to a survey of communities by CBC News.
More than a dozen First Nations said projects to end long-term drinking water advisories won't be completed by the promised deadline.
Five communities reached by CBC News said a permanent fix will take years.
"Frustration sets in at times," said Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, which has been under a long-term boil water advisory for more than 21 months and had sporadic temporary boil water advisories for many years prior to that.
"We need [the federal government] to speak out. They're not going to meet that target, but they should be telling the First Nations [they're] not pulling out."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised to end all long-term boil water advisories during the 2015 campaign. It was the first major promise on the Indigenous reconciliation file, which became one of the central priorities of the Liberal's governing agenda. The Trudeau government then said it would meet the target by March 2021.
Now, months away from the deadline, many communities say the government is set to break its promise and they're urging Ottawa to step up its efforts.
"Over the past years, we've lifted close to 100 long term boil water advisories, many of which had been in place for years and decades," Trudeau said Friday. "This is something we have worked diligently on. It's seen significant success over the past number of years, but always, the communities that we haven't been able to lift those advisories on continue to struggle."
Trudeau said the COVID-19 pandemic has made some of the timelines less certain but insists his government is working "very hard to reach our goal of lifting all long-term boil water advisories by the spring of 2021."
Watch | Trudeau defends government's record on lifting boil-water advisories:
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller insisted his department is continuing to work toward the 2021 deadline but said Friday that "it's too early to determine the full impact of COVID-19, as we're in the middle of it, on water infrastructure timelines."
Miller said that since March, his government has lifted an additional eight long-term boil water advisories — including the one in Grassy Narrows, which had been under a boil water advisory since 2014.
"Canada won't stop until all First Nations on reserve [have] access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water," he pledged.
Chippewas of Nawash is one of 41 communities contacted by CBC News that are currently on Indigenous Services Canada's long-term boil water advisory list.
'We're going to have to bear with it'
The community, located 57 kilometres north of Owen Sound, Ont., hugs the southeastern tip of Georgian Bay and east side of Lake Huron — some of the largest sources of freshwater in the country. Its traditional name "Neyaashiinigmiing" means a point of land surrounded on three sides by water — yet its members can't drink water from their taps.
The Chippewas of Nawash is receiving over $22.5 million to build a new water plant after extensive lobbying and delays caused by a change in the department's minister, but it will be a while before safe drinking water flows.
Construction isn't expected to complete until 2023, said Nadjiwon.
"I think the most important aspect of that promise is that it happens," he said.
"We're going to have to bear with it, but there are a lot of First Nation communities in the province that are in dire need of having treatment plants so they can finally have potable water."
'To me, that speaks to systemic racism'
Since forming government, the Liberals have spent $1.65 billion of $2.19 billion set aside to build and repair water and wastewater infrastructure, and to manage and maintain existing systems on reserves.
Ottawa has ended 96 long-term boil water advisories so far, but still faces 60 in 41 communities — some First Nations rely on more than one system.
Fifteen First Nations reached by CBC News say they expect to lift their advisories by next March, but for many it depends on the progress of construction and water testing over the coming weeks and months.
More than half of the communities still on the long-term drinking water advisory list are in Ontario.
"To me, that speaks to systemic racism," Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald said.
"It's not that government individuals are individually racist. It's that the system itself is really not caring."
Archibald said the problem stems from chronic underfunding by all governments. She said a sustainable, long-term term financial commitment is needed to address the humanitarian crisis.
"This is not just a Justin Trudeau problem," Archibald said. "This is a Brian Mulroney problem. This is a Jean Chretien problem. This is a problem of Stephen Harper. Government after government has failed First Nations."
Miller agreed that the persistent failure to address boil water advisories is a symptom of systemic racism.
"I can't shy away from the fact that this is a product of systemic discrimination, systemic racism that plagues all our institutions. Now, there's a lot of focus that's been on the RCMP and the health care system, but this is across government. It is ... it's insidious and it occurs in many forms," he said.
First Nation skepticism
The community that embodied the Liberal's safe drinking water promise is Neskantaga. The fly-in First Nation of 460 members, which sits 450 km north of Thunder Bay, has been under a boil water advisory for 25 years. It raised its plight during the 2015 campaign on the same day Trudeau made his promise.
The Liberal government committed to upgrading Neskantaga's water treatment plant by 2018, but the project is two years behind schedule.
With the government's promised deadline looming, Nesktanaga was forced to evacuate last week when an oily sheen was discovered in the reservoir that supplies the community.
"It was horrific," Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias. "What [could have] happened if someone consumed it?"
Tests show water is contaminated with hydrocarbons. Moonias said he still doesn't know how the contamination got into the reservoir, but there are leaks in the water distribution system.
Until those leaks are fixed, Moonias said Neskantaga can't start using its new water treatment plant, which is almost operational. Moonias said he doubts the work will be enough to lift its boil water advisory.
"We have said all along, for the past over 20 years, that we need a new system," Moonias said.
"The system that was forced upon us is flawed. We can't keep doing band-aid solutions. We can't keep on ordering new parts and doing upgrades."
Along with Curve Lake First Nation in southern Ontario, Neskantaga First Nation is one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit against the federal government seeking damages and compensation for communities and members who have suffered from boil water advisories.
A class action suit has also been launched in Manitoba by Tataskweyak Cree Nation making similar allegations.
Challenges vary from community to community
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller previously told CBC News that his government is working "aggressively" to meet its spring 2021 target and will be spending more funds this fall to make it happen.
Miller also said the challenge of lifting all drinking water advisories is not a question of funds, but planning.
Some communities can hook up to a municipal water system, such as Semiahmoo First Nation in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, which is accessing water from the City of Surrey. Others have had to build new water treatment plants and distribution systems altogether.
For remote communities, there is only a short window each year to haul heavy equipment over ice roads.
Complicating matters, COVID-19 caused project delays in many First Nations that shut down to protect themselves from the virus.
Upgrades to the water treatment plant in Nibinamik First Nation, which is located about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, were supposed to start this summer.
But Chief Sheldon Oskineegish said the community decided to postpone the work by one year because it didn't have the capacity to accommodate contractors and maintain physical distancing during the pandemic.
Concerns over COVID-19 also pushed back water projects in Sachigo Lake First Nation, about 640 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, which is now negotiating a delay cost with its contractor that could set the community back thousands of dollars.
B.C. First Nation convinced Ottawa to pay more
In some cases, the fact that a community is close to lifting its long-term drinking water advisory doesn't mean it will have safe drinking water for all.
In Wahta Mohawk First Nation, located nearly 80 kilometres north of Barrie, Ont., the community is waiting for test results to come back so it can lift the advisory on its administrative building, which will then supply water to the rest of the community.
A water distribution system does not exist on Wahta Mohawk First Nation because the cost of laying pipe in granite is considered too high for its population of approximately 200 people.
Upgrades to the water treatment plant on the Chippewas of Georgina Island, located about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, are expected to be completed by the spring or summer of next year. However, 30 per cent of the community will still not have access to running water — a distribution system does not exist for the east side of the island.
Jimmy Lulua, chief of Xeni Gwet'in First Nation in northern British Columbia, said the water is so clean on his territory that people drink from the nearby creek.
Lulua said Indigenous Services Canada wanted to install a chlorination system for the Carrot Creek community tap water at a cost of $5,000 for ten homes.
But after hearing from elders, who voiced concerns about the safety of chlorine, the community pushed back and convinced the department to use ultraviolet light to treat the water instead at a price of $50,000.
"We give them props," Lulua said. "I think Justin Trudeau has done a very good job at trying, at least. We've never seen that before with a prime minister."