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Minister of Finance Bill Morneau responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 4, 2019, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says the “enormously complicated” effort to end all drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities isn’t being held back by a shortage of money.

In response to a university student’s question Thursday in Guelph, Ont., Morneau acknowledged that fulfilling the Liberals’ 2015 campaign pledge has been a big challenge and won’t be finished quickly.

“The idea that we have places in this country that don’t have access to clean drinking water is just unacceptable in 21st-century Canada,” Morneau said at the University of Guelph after being asked if he had considered diverting more money into the program.

“This is not something that we’ve looked at from a constrained-funding approach. Every dollar that we need to spend in this to get it done we are spending. This has been a long-term challenge — and the challenge is not only putting the money in to actually get the (water) systems up and running, but it’s the ongoing maintenance.”

The Liberals have vowed to see all long-term water advisories on reserves lifted by March 2021 — and they have committed about $2 billion over several years towards investments like water and wastewater infrastructure to get there.

The federal government says 78 advisories about potentially tainted water have been lifted since the Liberals took office in November 2015, but 62 remain in place.

Morneau said that beyond building new treatment systems and replacing old ones, the effort faces obstacles such as technician training, geography and climate-related issues like flooding.

“It’s an enormously complicated challenge because it’s not only about the investments, it’s about the human talent, the people there to maintain it,” he said. “So, we’re not only funding that investment. And we’ve been very successful in getting many of these boil-water advisories taken off, but there’s been some that have come back on because of that challenge.”

In a December 2017 report, the parliamentary budget officer estimated it would cost the Liberal government at least $3.2 billion to make good on its promise to eliminate on-reserve water advisories.

The budget watchdog’s estimate includes $1.2 billion to upgrade existing water and wastewater systems so that they meet safety standards. The other $2 billion, it said, will be needed to replace systems as they age and to meet the needs of growing populations on reserves.

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