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Auditor General Karen Hogan holds a press conference after releasing a report in Ottawa on Feb. 25, 2021.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government has not provided adequate support to First Nations to access safe drinking water, the Auditor-General says in a report.

In the audit tabled in Parliament, Auditor-General Karen Hogan, an officer of Parliament who aids in oversight of financial operations, said drinking-water advisories remain a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.

Indigenous Services Canada’s (ISC) efforts have been constrained by a number of issues, the Auditor-General found, noting that there is an outdated policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of water infrastructure.

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Ms. Hogan focused on whether the department provided adequate support to First Nations and progress on Ottawa’s previously stated pledge to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories on reserve by March.

The Auditor-General said that when her office was carrying out its audit, it was becoming clear that it was unlikely the government could meet its goal. She also told reporters it is not an acceptable situation that so many people do not have access to safe drinking water.

Justin Trudeau made the pledge in the 2015 election campaign that resulted in the Liberal government’s majority mandate, but the marquee promise was broken.

In December, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the government would not be able to meet that goal but pointed to $1.5-billion in the fall economic statement designed to expedite the lifting of remaining advisories. The department has not released a new timeline. It says there are still 39 communities that have 57 long-term water advisories.

Mr. Miller said he welcomed the Auditor-General’s findings and added that the government will work with communities to address deficiencies, prevent recurring advisories and invest in long-term solutions.

Thursday’s A-G report also included chapters on the government’s management of the Canada Child Benefit, the National Shipbuilding Strategy, IT procurement and rail safety.

The Auditor-General’s review of the Canada Revenue Agency’s handling of the Canada Child Benefit was largely positive, concluding that payments are being made in a timely and accurate manner.

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However, the report did flag that a one-time enhancement to the program approved at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic had the impact of giving millions of dollars in benefits to higher-income households that would not normally have qualified for the program.

The benefit to parents with children under 18 is geared to income and provides a larger benefit for families with children under the age of 6.

Last March, Ottawa approved a payment of up to $300 per child under the program. Thursday’s report notes that the payments were approved under a modified formula, which had the effect of sending nearly $88-million to 265,000 additional higher-income families.

For a family with one child under 6, the one-time payment went to families with net family income of $307,960, whereas the cutoff would have been $195,460 under the previous rules.

On shipbuilding, the audit runs through the federal government’s plan to build more than 50 vessels for the navy and coast guard at two Canadian shipyards over 30 years. The report concludes that federal departments “did not manage the National Shipbuilding Strategy in a manner that supported timely renewal of the federal large vessel fleet … but they did address issues that threatened the future renewal of the federal fleet.”

Specifically, the report noted that efforts are being made to extend the life of some current ships or to lease ships to address short-term needs.

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The report runs through the various procurement plans for support ships, patrol ships, surface combatants, fisheries vessels and icebreakers and found many are months or years behind schedule.

While the audit on shipbuilding wrapped up just before the pandemic, the report notes that further delays owing to COVID-19 should be expected.

The Auditor-General also found that Public Services and Procurement, Shared Services, the Treasury Board Secretariat and Employment and Social Development made progress on procurement for information technology, including efforts to purchase a replacement for the Phoenix pay system. However, the office found that the organizations did not provide enough guidance or training to staff and did not effectively engage stakeholders.

On rail safety, the Auditor-General followed up on its recommendations from a 2013 audit and found some improvements. However, the report says Transport Canada has not identified whether rail safety has improved as a result of the department’s inspection and audit work.

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