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Empty glasses, empty promises to Canada’s First Nations

If a government's first obligation is to ensure the safety of its citizens, a Globe and Mail investigation illustrates how dismally Canada has failed aboriginal communities when it comes to one of life's basic necessities.

The plight of those mostly remote locales may somehow seem abstract to many Canadians, but consider this fact: Fully one-third of people living on First Nations reserves – about 150,000 people – do not have reliable access to a safe supply of drinking water, according to the federal government's own figures.

The statistic in itself is unacceptable, but so is the time it is taking to remedy the situation.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to eliminate all boil-water advisories on reserves within five years, and his government is evidently committed to making the First Nations file a front-burner political priority.

Empathy is a virtue, but it's not a substitute for action, and action is urgently needed.

As it stands, it takes roughly three years for water infrastructure projects to wind their way through the labyrinthine government-approval process. That's plainly too long.

Worse, the federal dataset shows that even in places where new or upgraded water systems have been put in place, the quality and safety of what flows out of them can't be guaranteed.

In some cases, recently updated systems appear to pose a greater risk than infrastructure that is decades old.

It also seems there are chronic problems, both with regular maintenance and the training of on-reserve workers. This should be a manageable and solvable situation.

After the citizens of Walkerton, Ont., began getting sick in the summer of 2000 because of contaminated water (seven people died), nearly 150 towns and cities in the province updated their deficient infrastructure. For the most part, it took under 12 months.

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Ottawa knows what is required to fix the drinking-water calamity on reserves, and has even budgeted nearly $2-billion to that effort.

What is needed now is a commitment to shorten the logistical and bureaucratic delays in spending that money.

First Nations communities in this country are beset by myriad problems. Being able just to fill a glass from the tap should not be one of them.

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