Jagmeet Singh is promising to bring the “political will” to end boil-water advisories on First Nations, but has offered few specifics on how this would be achieved under an NDP government.
The NDP campaign travelled to Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario on Monday, a visit Mr. Singh said is important to draw attention to the lack of clean drinking water in many remote Indigenous communities.
On the tarmac at Sioux Lookout airport before departing for Neskantaga, Mr. Singh said the community represents the broader problem, as it has had boil-water advisories for 26 years.
“It’s certainly not the capacity, it’s certainly not the lack of technology. It’s certainly not the money, because we have the resources, we can do this. Then what is it? I don’t buy for a second that it is anything other than the political will,” Mr. Singh said.
“There is no excuse.”
Mr. Singh met with Chief Wayne Moonias on Monday and visited community members in their homes.
Mr. Singh criticized the Liberals for failing to eliminate boil-water advisories, saying there’s “no way” the issue couldn’t have been solved in the six years they have been in power.
Mr. Singh didn’t specify how an NDP government would fix the problem, besides saying he would make it a priority. The recently released NDP costing platform pledges $2.9-billion over the next five years for clean drinking water, but Mr. Singh couldn’t say on Monday where the money would go or how it would be divided, only that he would “make sure this is fixed.”
“There needs to be more than just talk,” Mr. Moonias said to reporters. “There’s a moral obligation here, and an obligation to our people to get this thing right, to fix this once and for all.”
He said he invited all the federal leaders to the community, but Mr. Singh was the only one to accept.
The Liberals pledged during the 2015 election campaign to end boil-water advisories by March, 2021, but acknowledged late last year that would not happen, citing COVID-19 as a complication. Government documents revealed last May it could take until 2026.
According to Indigenous Services Canada, 109 long-term drinking-water advisories have been lifted since the Liberals took power in 2015; 52 are still in effect in 33 communities.
In a statement, Liberal Party spokeswoman Adrienne Vaupshas said the party has made a lot of progress in ending advisories, but more needs to be done. “That is why in every community for a long-term drinking water advisory, there is a project team, action plan and funding in place to resolve it. We cannot, and will not, abandon our obligation to ensure First Nations have safe and clean drinking water,” she said.
First Nations issue the advisories when tests show their water is not safe to drink. Advisories are called long term when they have been in place for more than a year. The federal government has previously said helping the communities get to where they can lift the advisories involves working with First Nations to address the health and safety issues and to ensure their water-treatment facilities are properly operated and maintained.
In Neskantaga, Mr. Singh visited the water treatment plant, where he heard about the factors that are holding back the plant from producing clean water, which include training a technician to maintain the system and many pipes that need to be replaced.
Last year, problems with a $16-million water-plant upgrade forced about 250 residents to evacuate to Thunder Bay for two months because of an oily sheen in the community’s reservoir.
Neskantaga, about 430 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, hasn’t lifted its boil water advisory even though the upgrade to its water treatment plant was completed. Community members still use water shipped by the federal government in bottles and from an alternative filtering system for consumption, cooking and bathing.
Leaders from Neskantaga have said infrastructure such as a water and waste-water system was never designed to meet the needs of the community, with many households overcrowded, and there’s doubt the upgrade will hold up without an overhaul, including a new distribution system.
Neskantaga is one of three plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Indigenous Services that was recently settled out of court for $8-billion in compensation and other funds for 258 First Nations who’ve been under drinking water advisories.
Mr. Moonias told reporters during Mr. Singh’s visit the water upgrade project is continuing and there haven’t been concrete solutions by Indigenous Services.
“There’s a lot of uncertainties, there’s a lot of traumas being inflicted as a result of a lack of clean, safe drinking water in our community,” Mr. Moonias said.
“It’s not just.”
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