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Indigenous Services minister to acknowledge Liberals won’t meet promised drinking water target

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller will announce today the Liberal government won’t meet its commitment to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021, according to a senior government source with knowledge of the file. 

But Miller will outline how the government will spend more than $1.5 billion to finish the work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised to end all long-term boil water advisories within five years during the 2015 campaign

It was the first major promise on the Indigenous reconciliation file, which became one of the central priorities of the Liberal’s governing agenda. At the time, the Trudeau government said it would meet the target by March 2021.

In October, CBC News surveyed all communities on the long-term drinking water advisory list maintained by Indigenous Services Canada.

More than a dozen First Nations said their projects won’t be completed by the promised deadline. Five communities said a permanent fix will take years.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the proposed new funding. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Trudeau government has helped lift 97 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations since 2015, according to Indigenous Services Canada. Currently, 59 advisories are still in place in 41 communities.

Since forming government, the Liberals have spent more than $1.65 billion of the $2.19 billion they set aside to build and repair water and wastewater infrastructure, and to manage and maintain existing systems on reserves.

The $1.5 billion proposed in Monday’s fiscal update is in addition to the $2.19 billion.

Funding for repairs, training and ongoing maintenance

The new money is aimed at helping First Nations in three key areas.

The first will focus on ongoing support for daily operations and maintenance of water infrastructure on reserves to help keep that infrastructure in good condition, even after long-term drinking water advisories are lifted. The money would also fund training for water treatment plant operators and help communities better retain qualified workers. 

The second area is to continue funding water and wastewater infrastructure on reserves to prevent future drinking water advisories.

Finally, the money will also pay for work that was halted due to COVID-19 and other project delays. The pandemic caused some First Nation communities to close their borders to contractors and temporarily stop work on improving their water systems.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the Liberals have underestimated the amount of money needed to lift all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations called the new proposed money a move in the right direction, but more resources may be required in future budgets to lift all advisories.

“Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right,” Bellegarde said.

“It’s not right that in a rich country like Canada you still can’t turn on the taps for potable water.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the new commitment is a recognition that the government had low-balled the amount of money it would take to address water advisories on reserves. 

“The government has recognized that they can’t keep doing this as a publicity exercise,” Angus said. “So that money will go a long way.”

Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal said the federal government had no intention of meeting the March 2021 deadline. (Submitted)

In 2017, the parliamentary budget officer found the federal government was spending only 70 per cent of what was needed to eliminate boil water advisories in First Nations communities.

Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal said it’s clear “there is no intent to meet the 2021 target.

“We know this is going to be an ongoing challenge.”

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