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Politics Assembly of First Nations urges Canada to invest in safe drinking water

An investigation by The Globe found that one-third of people living on First Nations reserves across Canada use drinking water systems that threaten their health.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The Assembly of First Nations is calling on the government to invest immediately in First Nations' access to clean drinking water after a Globe and Mail report revealed that risky water systems pose a health threat to more than 150,000 people living on reserves.

In a statement Tuesday, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said urgent action is needed from all levels of government to dramatically improve water systems in First Nations communities. A six-month investigation by The Globe found that 152,000 of the approximately 462,000 people living on First Nations reserves across Canada – or one-third – use drinking water systems that threaten their health.

"It is completely unacceptable that there are more than 100 First Nations communities in this country that do not have access to safe drinking water," Mr. Bellegarde said.

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"The last federal budget committed a welcome $1.8-billion in infrastructure for First Nations. Those resources need to reach communities and the federal government needs to work with First Nations to address housing, water and other infrastructure needs."

Investigation: Risky water systems pose health threat to one-third of people on First Nation reserves

Data obtained by The Globe also found that without significant changes to its approach, the federal government risks falling short of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election promise to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years. For the AFN, the report was further evidence of the poor state of First Nations' drinking water.

"The serious risks relating to First Nations drinking water are well known and well documented. It's time for action now. First Nations citizens are suffering," AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart said in the statement.

However, information from the Integrated Capital Management System (ICMS), an Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada database, suggests that increased spending alone won't be enough to meet the government's five-year goal. For instance, the ICMS found in its annual inspection of water and waste-water systems on First Nations reserves that plants built in the past 15 years actually have a higher average risk of producing unsafe water under adverse conditions than those built in the 1970s.

The ICMS data also revealed that 60 per cent of overall risk scores for the water systems stem from factors under the operators' control, such as record keeping. Many First Nations plant operators lack proper training. The risk score for water systems range from 0 to 10, with those above 7 deemed to be "high," 4 to 7 as "medium" and below 4 as "low."

While Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was not available for comment, her office issued a statement saying the Liberal government is still committed to ending long-term boil-water advisories on reserves in five years.

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NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus said the ICMS data raises questions about whether the Trudeau government understands what is needed to follow through on its promise.

"One of the reasons Mr. Trudeau was so successful in the last election was he made a number of audacious commitments to indigenous communities and indigenous people, but we haven't seen any of the resources or the plan to follow through and water is ground zero for this failure to follow through on what was promised," Mr. Angus told The Globe.

He also expressed concern about the lack of transparency surrounding the issue of water quality on First Nations reserves. Acquiring the ICMS data took six months of bureaucratic wrangling by The Globe and an appeal to the federal Information Commissioner.

The Conservatives declined to comment on the matter.

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