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Providing safe drinking water on reserves is simple. Just do it

Chuck Strahl, then the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, announces a government program to help native reserves with safe drinking water in 2008. The problem persists.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

Last January, there were 1,669 Canadian towns under drinking water advisories. By far the most common were advisories to boil tap water for a minute before consuming it.

Thankfully, these advisories are usually lifted quickly, because municipalities are governed by provincial regulations that define clear lines of responsibility and lay out rules on how to respond to problems. It's rare for DWAs to last more than a few weeks.

On native reserves, however, they can go on for decades. It's easy to see why.

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Drinking water on reserves is a federal jurisdiction. Ottawa provides 80 per cent of the funding; the local councils build and maintain the systems and are responsible for training the operators and doing regular testing.

So far, so good. But a complex set of regulations from three federal departments (Aboriginal Affairs, Health Canada and Environment Canada), combined with ambiguous guidelines regarding responsibility and enforcement – not to mention the inevitable squabbles over sovereignty – means problems can persist for years.

As a result, in July there were 133 Health Canada drinking water advisories in 126 First Nations communities. Ninety-three of them have been in place for more than two years. One-quarter have been ongoing for more than 10 years. And in a few communities, native residents have been boiling water since the 1990s.

These problems persist in spite of billions of dollars committed in federal budgets for the past 20 years ($3.5-billion from 1995 to 2008 alone, according to Aboriginal Affairs), as well as a 2013 federal law streamlining regulations and oversight. The failure to provide safe drinking water on reserves has become chronic.

This has to end. The next federal government should do an immediate audit of every troubled reserve system. It should then work directly with communities to fix the worst cases, and move on to the less urgent ones after that. If there are issues of sovereignty, local native governments and Ottawa should put them off until after the water is safe to drink.

Every Canadian needs clean drinking water. It's not a complicated position, morally or technically. The money is there and the problems are fixable. No more excuses.

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