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Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett (R) speaks during a news conference regarding a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett (R) speaks during a news conference regarding a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

Globe editorial: It will take more than money to ensure clean water on reserves Add to ...

‘There’s no technical reason why we couldn’t solve the drinking water problem,” is what a retired engineering executive told The Globe and Mail, as part of this newspaper’s investigation into the abysmal state of the water on the country’s Indigenous reserves. Truer words were never spoken.

Building and maintaining water treatment facilities is not exactly the Manhattan Project. It really shouldn’t be this hard. And in most communities, large and small, across Canada and the rest of the developed world, it isn’t. Except on far too many native reserves, it is. Why?

In the last election, Justin Trudeau promised that, if elected, he would fix things, and put an end to the frequent and widespread boil-water advisories in native communities – by 2021. Given that securing clean water shouldn’t be as difficult as a moon landing, that sounded like an awfully modest timeline.

Instead, it is starting to look as if it might be overly ambitious.

The 2016 federal budget pledged an additional $1.8-billion for water infrastructure in native communities. But as of Nov. 30, Health Canada reported 130 boil-water advisories in effect in 85 communities; a year earlier, the tally was 139 in 94 communities.

Why? We have a few questions that may help Ottawa and native leaders think about solutions.

Is the Liberal government trying to get to the bottom of why the water situation on so many native reserves, despite lots of treatment plants being built over the years, and lots of money being spent, has been so bad for so long?

Is Ottawa considering a paradigm shift in how this issue is handled, and how the water infrastructure in hundreds of native communities is tendered, built, operated and maintained – and by whom? Is the plan to give on-reserve governments more responsibility – or less? To what extent is this about changing the decision-making structure? Is this a – to invoke a favourite Liberal word – “systemic” problem?

Is the plan for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to keep on doing the same old thing, only trying harder, and with more money? Will there be a real change in management structure and mindset – or just business as usual, but with a bigger budget?

If so, to what extent is the Liberal government’s big five-year plan to clean up the water in native Canada likely to fail?

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