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In the water plant on Oct. 26, 2020, technicians Oksana Ostrovska, left, Wes Bova, centre right, and Mike Bazdarick, right, of Nibi Services observe the worsening oil sheen discovered on the Neskantaga First Nations water plants reservoir tanks.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Justin Trudeau was 24 when Neskantaga residents started having to boil their water. He was 43 in 2015 when he promised to eliminate all long-term boil-water advisories in First Nation communities by the end of March, 2021. He’s 48 now, and Neskantaga First Nation still has a boil-water advisory.

Most of the residents of the fly-in community were evacuated 450 kilometres to Thunder Bay in October, when an oily sheen was found in the water. Maybe the system will be deemed fixed any day now. But Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said in an interview last week he thinks residents probably aren’t going back to safe water. He wonders what else will go wrong.

The mind-boggling question is how it can be taking so long. That applies to water in many First Nations.

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There were still 41 boil-water advisories in effect in Indigenous communities on Oct. 15, according to a document tabled in the House of Commons last week. Mr. Trudeau will no longer say if his government will meet its promise to eliminate boil-water advisories by March 31, when he will be 49.

The truth is it won’t. Government officials know the deadline won’t be met. There will still be some advisories in effect when the deadline passes, maybe 20.

It’s hard to understand. Political promises get broken, but usually because governments don’t have the will, or the money. Mr. Trudeau has put political capital into this high-profile promise. Since 2015, his government has budgeted $2.7-billion for First Nations water systems.

Behind the scenes, the Indigenous Services department is asking Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland for about $400-million more in her upcoming mini-budget.

So why can’t plants and pipes and pumps get fixed?

The latest reason for delay is COVID-19, including community quarantines that caused shutdowns or slowdowns, and may still. But that’s not enough to explain it.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller admitted a bigger problem recently: The Liberal government didn’t initially grasp the scope of the problem.

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When Mr. Trudeau came to power in 2015, he promised to get all 105 long-term boil-water advisories lifted. And 96 were. But, in the meantime, dozens and dozens of short-term boil-water advisories became long-term advisories. While one system was patched, another sprang leaks, sometimes literally.

That should give us an idea of just how messed up the water systems in Indigenous communities were, and are.

The old Indian Affairs department oversaw many of those water systems, from afar, badly. Fifteen years ago, an auditor-general’s report found the department didn’t have proper standards and the water systems were riddled with design or construction flaws that made the water risky.

Nesktantaga’s Chief Moonias said he thinks Ottawa probably could have put in a whole new water system in the community for the money spent on repairing it over and over. He’s not confident now. “Is this just another Band-Aid?” he asked. Ottawa has agreed to his request for an investigation of contractors’ business practices.

While Neskantaga’s plant was being updated, the distribution pipes were leaking. On Oct. 8, the First Nation, which counts about 450 members, started turning off the water at night. On Oct. 19, when an oily substance was found in the water, technical staff from Matawa First Nations Management, which provides technical services to nine communities in the region, flew in to take samples but had to send them out for tests which would take 10 days, Chief Moonias said. Most residents were evacuated.

It turned out mineral oil was leaking from a pump. New Democrat MP Charlie Angus thinks that by now, Indigenous Services Canada should have emergency teams that fly in when a First Nation’s water supply is unusable.

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Of course, small communities anywhere can’t be expected to handle all water issues on their own. In Ontario, for example, they often rely on regional governments. But then the federal government has a long record of unaccountable bureaucratic mismanagement. Presumably, Indigenous organizations such as Matawa could be more responsive, if they had the resources.

Yet even now, while Ottawa can’t fix crumbling water systems, it only funds 80 per cent of the cost of operating and maintaining them, a formula seemingly designed to make things break. A chunk of the money the department is asking for now is supposed to go to rectifying that.

In the meantime, Neskantaga residents are in Thunder Bay, and 41 communities boil water every day. In four months, another target date will go by.

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