The goal is clear enough: Ensure that every First Nations reserve has clean water. If you turn on a tap, you can drink the water. But the achievement of something that is straightforward elsewhere in the country has eluded Ottawa for decades. The promises and failures stretch back to the current Prime Minister’s father.
In 1977, Pierre Trudeau set the target – “physical infrastructure that meets commonly accepted health and safety standards.” Three decades later, a 2005 Auditor-General report found there were still water risks in a “significant proportion” of First Nations, with most system operators inadequately trained. That was despite Ottawa having spent $1.9-billion between 1995 and 2003. In 2006, an expert report commissioned by the Harper government itemized the many issues – not enough funding; small systems in remote communities; overlapping oversight; lack of training – and declared: “The time has come for one last big push.” But five years later, the Auditor-General saw little progress, saying reserves “may still be years away” from the 1977 goal.
Come 2015, Justin Trudeau entered the arena. He promised that, if elected, long-term advisories for water unsafe to drink – some in place for decades – would all be lifted within five years. The pledge was made on the campaign trail. “This has gone on for far too long,” Mr. Trudeau said at a town hall. The Liberal government in 2016 budgeted $1.8-billion, and pledged to reach zero drinking-water advisories by March of 2021.
Late last year, with that deadline fast approaching, Ottawa conceded the goal will not be met. No new target date has been given. There are still 58 long-term advisories. The number when the Liberals started was 105. While 99 have been rectified since 2016, more than 50 new ones emerged. The latest case – just last week – was in Bearskin Lake in northwestern Ontario, where a nursing-station water system has no disinfection. It is Bearskin Lake’s second long-term advisory. The other, a do-not-consume order, has been in place for 14 years at the community and youth centre.
In early 2019, the Liberals insisted that their five-year plan was on track, but the signs then already were, long before the pandemic, that work was veering off course. In late 2017, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said Ottawa was not spending enough to get the job done. And a Globe and Mail story at the time found that for all the piles of money going to physical infrastructure, little was being invested in training people to operate it. Only about two in three operators were certified, a “startlingly low” percentage.
The latest Auditor-General report landed last week. Like the umpteenth sequel in a critically panned Hollywood movie franchise, the plot points are familiar. On top of the remaining boil-water advisories, some of what were supposed to have been permanent fixes are instead of the patchwork variety, with several communities not scheduled for a lasting solution until 2024.
This really shouldn’t be so hard. Yet for government after government, it’s been an impossible riddle. A recent Globe and Mail report showed that 28 water advisories have been in place for at least a decade.
Yes, there are obvious challenges. Many reserves are remote, with no road access. But even when that’s not the case, progress is elusive. The Semiahmoo First Nation is in the Vancouver suburbs, next to White Rock and Surrey. This reserve, barely a square kilometre in size and home to about 50 people, has been under a boil-water advisory since 2005. A $10-million project, including 12 kilometres of piping and three pump stations, will finally be completed this year.
Of the remaining 58 advisories, 19 are supposed to be lifted soon, and construction work on 31 more is under way. Ottawa has poured in more money to follow the $1.8-billion in 2016. Another $739-million was pledged in 2019 through 2024. Last December, the fall economic statement put up $1.5-billion through to 2026, with the bulk to be spent by next year. More money than before is going to operations and maintenance – and training.
The Liberal government was contrite in December, but Ottawa’s failings on this file are not new. They are bipartisan and long standing. Such results would not be acceptable in other small towns or rural communities, yet they remain a fact of life on too many reserves. The end of this story – with tap water that is safe to drink on every reserve – still lies somewhere in the future.
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