Medicine Hat News

Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor


The government did not provide the support needed to ensure First Nations communitie­s have access to safe drinking water, says federal auditor general Karen Hogan in a report released Thursday.

“We are very concerned, and honestly, dishearten­ed that this long-standing issue is still not resolved,” Hogan told a news conference in Ottawa.

Indigenous Services Canada won’t meet its commitment to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories by the end of March, something the government admitted late last fall. Hogan also noted the government has not created a regulatory regime for managing drinking water in First Nations communitie­s.

“Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity,” she said.

“I don’t believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021.”

Many First Nations in Canada have had water that’s unsafe to drink from the tap for years and fixing those problems has been a signature promise of the Liberal government.

The report concludes that 100 long-term advisories were lifted between 2015 and 2020 but 60 remained in effect as of Nov. 1, 2020, and almost half of those have been in place for more than a decade.

“Indigenous Services Canada must work in partnershi­p with First Nations to develop and implement a lasting solution for safe drinking water in First Nations communitie­s,” said Hogan.

Hogan said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress on some projects but many were already delayed.

Bloc Quebecois MP Maxime Blanchette Joncas said the government’s blaming the pandemic is “a poor excuse.”

“First Nations have a right to the minimum subsistenc­e level in terms of drinking water services,” Joncas said in a statement in French.

Hogan said the department has put in place many temporary measures to lift drinking water advisories.

“(A) temporary measure pushes the issue a little further down the road, so it’s time to find long-term sustainabl­e solutions,” she said.

Hogan’s report notes access to safe drinking water is vital to the health and well-being of 330,000 people living in more than 600 First Nations communitie­s across the country.

She said the Canadian government has not updated its funding formula for First Nations water systems for 30 years.

“You should look at things a little more often than 30 years,” she said. “We saw that the funding formula wasn’t meeting the current needs, let alone, perhaps, future needs that might be there.”

She said water-system operators in First Nations communitie­s are currently paid about 30 per cent less than their counterpar­ts in other parts of the country.

“Retention is very difficult, so you can have a water system that might work but you also need a skilled operator to make sure that it’s properly maintained and can work for the long term,” she said.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he welcomes the auditor general’s report and agrees with her recommenda­tions.

The funding formula for First Nations water systems was outdated, he said.

“The federal government was only providing 80 per cent of the funding, leaving the 20 per cent up to the community. Not all communitie­s can do that, so we’re moving to 100 per cent.”

Miller said First Nations communitie­s need the support of the government even after drinkingwa­ter advisories are lifted to operate and maintain their water treatment infrastruc­ture.

The report says some First Nations communitie­s continue to experience a lack of access to safe water 15 years after auditors called on the government to address the issue for the first time.

The Liberals began work on the problems by allocating more than $2 billion to improve water and wastewater in First Nations communitie­s in their 2016-17 budget, including funding to operate and maintain public drinking water systems.

This government’s funding to resolve the situation ends next month.

Indigenous Services Canada estimated that $1.79 billion had actually been spent by the end of November.

The government promised an additional $1.5 billion in funding, starting in 2026-27, for water treatment projects in First

Nations communitie­s in its fall economic statement.

The government said the new funding aims to accelerate the work to end all the long-term drinking water advisories.

 ?? CP PHOTO SEAN KILPATRICK ?? Auditor General Karen Hogan holds a press conference after releasing a report in Ottawa on Thursday.
CP PHOTO SEAN KILPATRICK Auditor General Karen Hogan holds a press conference after releasing a report in Ottawa on Thursday.

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