Toronto Star

Liberals admit failure on pledge of clean water for First Nations


OTTAWA— COVID-19, climate change, community isolation and “decades of neglect” help explain the Liberal government’s failure to meet its marquee pledge to bring clean drinking water to all First Nations reserves by March 2021, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday.

Miller conceded the Liberal government will miss its selfimpose­d deadline after it spent five years and more than $1.65 billion on an effort that fell short of the goal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly promised to meet.

Fifty-nine “long-term drinking water advisories” — in place for more than a year — remain on First Nations reserves as of this week, down from 105 that existed when the Liberals took power in November 2015, according to Miller’s department.

“I know a lot of work remains, but the progress made cannot be erased,” the minister told reporters on Parliament Hill

Wednesday. “Our government … will not abandon our commitment to ensuring First Nations on reserve have clean, safe and reliable drinking water.”

Miller pointed to a range of factors to explain why the government can’t meet its own deadline. He said the pandemic caused constructi­on delays for water systems on reserves. He also blamed climate change for causing shorter winters — making it harder to access communitie­s via ice roads — and cited difficulti­es in retaining qualified operations and maintenanc­e workers in remote First Nations communitie­s.

But Miller ultimately placed responsibi­lity for the failure on himself and the Liberal government, admitting that they “didn’t appreciate” the extent of the challenge created in part by “massive” underfundi­ng in some communitie­s that haven’t had safe drinking water for years. Ontario’s Neskantaga First Nation, for example, has faced a boil water advisory since 1995.

RoseAnne Archibald, Ontario Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, told the Star Wednesday that she believes “systemic racism” within the government is ultimately responsibl­e for preventing action necessary to ensure safe water is available to all First Nations reserves.

“We would have zero boil water advisories if they had done enough,” she said. “No community in Canada should be suffering under a boil water advisory, not in this day and age.”

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