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Neskantaga First Nations Chief Chris Moonias looks into nation's water reservoir tank which recently developed an oily sheen, on Oct. 26, 2020.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

The federal government has proposed spending $1.5-billion to expedite the lifting of long-term drinking-water advisories for Indigenous communities, but did not address whether it was still committed to meeting its goal of providing clean water in all those communities by March.

Ottawa has faced pressure from Indigenous leaders and opposition parties to make good on its promise from 2015 to end all long-term drinking water advisories within five years. The March, 2021, timeline remains on the federal government’s website while the online portal detailing the number of advisories has not been updated since before the pandemic.

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“Our government proposes to invest $1.5-billion, beginning in 2020-21, to speed up the lifting of all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday in a speech in the House of Commons after tabling an economic statement detailing the path forward for the country’s finances during the pandemic.

In February, the government said 88 long-term boil-water advisories had been lifted since November, 2015, and that 61 remained in effect. An updated document tabled in the House of Commons this month said there are 41 remaining.

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At the end of October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to be backing away from the government’s timeline at a news conference when asked about the situation in Neskantaga First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. The community has been under a drinking-water advisory for 25 years and was evacuated this fall when an oil sheen was found on the surface of its reservoir.

In response, Mr. Trudeau said the commitment to end long-term drinking water advisories mattered “an awful lot” to the government and Indigenous communities but COVID-19 and travel restrictions had created “challenges in certain communities.”

“We continue to be optimistic we’re going to be able to lift those remaining boil-water advisories soon,” he said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the government’s planned spending is a welcome and important commitment to First Nations.

“Many communities, like Neskantaga First Nation, have been without water for decades,” he said. “Access to potable water is a human right and must be afforded to all First Nations. I’m hopeful that these new investments will end all long-term drinking water advisories across Canada.”

Opposition parties were critical Monday of why the Prime Minister has not clearly stated the target to end the advisories has changed.

Gary Vidal, the Conservative critic for Indigenous Services, said the economic statement makes it clear that the Liberals “still have no real plan to end long-term drinking-water advisories on First Nations.”

“Instead, today’s announcement is an attempt by this Liberal government to cover up the fact they will miss their March, 2021, target,” he said.

“The time for future promises is over. The Liberal government has lost credibility on this issue and their words can no longer can be trusted.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Monday the Liberals have clearly broken their March, 2021, commitment on ending long-term water advisories but the $1.5-billion announced in the economic update is a positive step forward.

The big failure of the economic update when it comes to Indigenous communities is housing, Mr. Singh said, adding that spending is “woefully lacking.”

Mr. Singh also said he wished the Prime Minister would be upfront with Canadians about not being able to meet their original target on water, adding the government has been in power for the last six years.

“He should have been clear about it,” he said. “If this was a priority, it should have been done.”

Some of the additional proposed measures include $25.9-million in 2020-21 to speed up the government’s 10-year plan to close the infrastructure gap by developing plans with Indigenous partners. It also said $1.8-billion will be directed to community infrastructure over seven years, beginning in 2021-22.

The government also detailed plans for an initial investment of $15.6-million over two years, starting in 2021-22, to help develop health legislation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation partners. It said this will begin the process of transforming health care delivery in Indigenous communities by ensuring Indigenous control over the development and delivery of health services.

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