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Wayne Moonias fills water jugs from Attawapisakt Lake in Neskantaga First Nations on Oct. 26, 2020. Mr. Moonias and the 24 members which remained must fill numerous jugs each day to flush toilets, bathe and do dishes, but as the lake freezes, the task is becoming difficult and Mr. Moonias suffers with his arthritic hands as he repeatedly must dip jugs in the frigid waters.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

The federal government will not meet its target of March, 2021, to end all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, a key pledge Justin Trudeau made in the 2015 election campaign.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said about a dozen communities, for varying reasons, will not be in a position to lift their long-term drinking-water advisories by March. The target date was removed from the federal government’s website on Wednesday.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said First Nations are frustrated but not surprised by the announcement. He added they have good reason to be disappointed because the Liberals have been in office for more than five years.

“While there has been significant progress in recent years, it clearly is not enough,” he said.

First Nations issue the advisories when tests show their water is not safe to drink. Long-term drinking water advisories are those that have been in place for more than a year. The federal government says helping the communities reach the point where they can lift the advisories is a complex process. Federal officials work with First Nations to address the health and safety issues and ensure water-treatment facilities are properly operated and maintained.

Mr. Trudeau first pledged to end all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations during the 2015 election campaign that brought the Liberals to power with a majority mandate in the previous Parliament. While many Indigenous leaders and opposition parties have long questioned whether the timeline was achievable, Mr. Miller’s announcement on Wednesday was a formal recognition it is out of reach.

Mr. Miller said the government is committed to end the remaining advisories and to communities that have already been able to lift them.

“We will be with them for the long term,” he said at a news conference in Ottawa.

Mr. Bellegarde welcomed the announcement of $1.5-billion in Monday’s fall economic statement designed to speed the work needed for First Nations to lift all the long-term water advisories. He said he remains hopeful it will be used in the coming months to end the situation across Canada “once and for all.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, called the government’s admission on Wednesday that it will miss its target both disappointing and disheartening, adding Ottawa should double its efforts, especially during a pandemic, to ensure access to clean water.

The Neskantaga First Nation in Northwestern Ontario 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.

The Grand Chief said the most difficult thing will be telling the children of the community, who have been “holed up in a hotel for more than a month” that they may not be going home in time for Christmas.

“How do you tell a 10-year-old that they may not be able to enjoy Christmas in their own homes with their family?” he said. “We owe it to them to give the answers that they have ... been looking for, even if they’re difficult ones.”

At a briefing on Wednesday, senior officials with Indigenous Services Canada said 59 long-term drinking-water advisories remain in effect in First Nations communities.

The department also said communities, with government support, had lifted 97 long-term drinking-water advisories, and 171 short-term advisories were prevented from becoming long-term.

The officials also said the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complexity to an already challenging goal because disruptions to the supply chain and the construction season affected timelines.

In October, Mr. Trudeau was asked at a news conference when the water advisory in Neskantaga would be over.

The Prime Minister said the commitment to end long-term drinking water advisories mattered “an awful lot” to the government and Indigenous communities, but he cited challenges in certain communities as a result of COVID-19 and travel restrictions.

Mr. Miller said on Wednesday the government is making itself accountable.

“While there have been many reasons for the delay, I want to state as clearly as possible that ultimately I bear the responsibility for this, and I have the responsibility and the duty to get this done,” he said, adding Ottawa is not not walking away from its promise.

“Quite the opposite,” he said. “This is a much deeper commitment to walking along the path of ensuring that communities have safe access to clean and reliable drinking water.”

Ending long-term drinking water advisories is a process rather than a single event, Mr. Miller said, adding the Prime Minister’s original promise was an “expression of what Canadians would expect any leader to do.” Mr. Trudeau deserves much credit for making it, he said.

“That said, in the last four, five years, we’ve seen a number of challenges.”

Mr. Miller said, for example, the government increased the number of water systems that needed to be fixed as “a matter of fairness” because previous criteria had excluded 250.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it is inexcusable the Liberal government broke its promise, and said he can’t imagine Mr. Miller going to his Montreal riding to apologize for missing a deadline for clean drinking water.

“This is not a broken promise,” Mr. Singh said. “It is a betrayal of trust and it sends a message that Indigenous people don’t matter; a message that they’ve heard again and again. This is frankly disgusting.”

Ontario New Democratic MP Charlie Angus said a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer published in December, 2017, made it clear the Liberals “were low-balling the costs and wouldn’t meet their target.”

Gary Vidal, the Conservative critic for Indigenous Services, said Mr. Trudeau has lost all credibility because he has been promising access to clean drinking water for First Nations since 2015.

“Indigenous communities don’t need more empty promises or artificial government timelines,” he said. “They need certainty, clarity and competence from their government.

Mr. Vidal also called on Mr. Miller to bring in private-sector companies to get the work done more efficiently and end what he called “this national embarrassment.”

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