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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller can be surprisingly frank about the federal government’s failings. He’s the odd minister who furrows his brow in a press conference and answers a reporter thoughtfully. But he is not the prime minister.

When Mr. Miller came out on Tuesday to admit, for the first time officially, that the Liberal government wasn’t going to meet the March, 2021, deadline for lifting all long-term boil-water advisories in First Nations communities, he gave some reasonably detailed explanations of where things went wrong.

But there was something missing: The PM.

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The promise, after all, was Justin Trudeau’s. It was a high-profile commitment made in the 2015 election campaign. He repeated it in government, notably when he travelled to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in Manitoba in 2016 and hauled jugs of water. It was specific, too. All long-term boil-water advisories would be lifted in five years, by the end of March, 2021.

The political value of the promise, in fact, was that it was clear, easy to understand, specific, and made by the person who would be PM. And what we are supposed to get in return is accountability. On Wednesday, Mr. Miller said he takes responsibility. But this was about prime ministerial accountability. Accept no substitute.

For weeks, Mr. Trudeau had been refusing to say if the promise will be kept, although he was asked. When the government was ready to ‘fess up, he should have done it in person. Not for gotcha, but for accountability, both for this promise and for the future.

Mr. Miller’s message was in larger part about the future: The deadline will be missed, although not by a huge margin, and the government will keep funding improvements in Indigenous communities’ water systems, including $1.5-billion put aside in this week’s fall economic statement.

Indigenous Services Canada says the government will be unable to meet its goal to lift all boil-water advisories in First Nations communities by March 2021, as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Canadian Press

He said the pandemic has been an obstacle, but not the only one. He admitted that at first the Liberals didn’t fully appreciate the “state of decay” of the infrastructure in First Nations. Officials said there were 105 long-term boil-water advisories in 2015, and 97 were lifted – but because new ones went into effect, there are still 59 advisories in 41 communities.

Mr. Miller said there are still about a dozen communities where the advisories will not be lifted by the deadline. The pandemic caused construction delays in about half of them, he said, and about half had other issues, or other priorities. Shoal Lake 40, for example, first wanted a road built into the isolated community so materials could be transported. Mr. Miller insisted that those remaining communities do not want a deadline set by Ottawa but a long-term commitment to a sustainable fix.

Boil-water advisories aren’t the only issue with First Nations water, he noted.

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That’s fair enough. The 2019-20 evaluations by Indigenous Services Canada deemed 106 of 718 water systems inspected in Indigenous communities to be “high risk.” According to the department, high risk is when major deficiencies are identified with a majority of the components. A promise about boil-water advisories was never about the whole problem with First Nations’ water.

But now there is no clear point of political accountability. Mr. Miller didn’t provide a new date for lifting all long-term boil-water advisories. And not surprisingly, he didn’t offer a date for accomplishing the bigger, broader goal of bringing First Nations’ water systems up to the standards of those in non-Indigenous communities.

At least Mr. Trudeau’s specific promise about boil-water advisories had put some focus on First Nations’ water after decades of mismanagement and neglect. Finance ministers had to remember it when they made budgets. There was, as Mr. Miller noted, progress. Yet breaking the promise could, as New Democrat MP Charlie Angus argues, foster more mistrust among First Nations.

That’s why, with due respect to Mr. Miller, only one person should have walked out and acknowledged the commitment wouldn’t be met. It was Mr. Trudeau’s job, and it could not be delegated. If the Prime Minister’s word won’t be kept on this symbolic thing, he had to explain it, in person. If his promise is being transformed into something else, something longer-term, with broader goals, but no fixed dates, one person should have stood up to say so: Justin Trudeau.

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