Current Problems

Drinking Water Advisories

Make this the year of safe and clean water on every First Nations reserve

January 1, 2023
When first elected to government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $1.8-billion toward providing clean drinking water and set March, 2021 as a deadline. AMBER BRACKEN/THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Globe and Mail: OPINION – Globe Editorial Board

Too often, a resolution to improve is a three-act tragedy. It begins with a hopeful desire to reverse bad habits. In Act 2, resolve falters and progress sputters. And finally, in Act 3, there is resignation. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Act 3 is where we find the federal government and its stated, and restated, promise to provide safe drinking water on all First Nations reserves. Years, and many missed deadlines, have come and gone since Justin Trudeau and his Liberals first vowed to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves. During the 2015 federal election campaign, Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias challenged the candidates to make a resolution. His Ojibwe community, located 430 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, had gone without clean drinking water for two decades. Who would fix it?

Later that day, Justin Trudeau accepted the challenge, promising to eliminate long-term boil-water advisories on every First Nation within five years. At the time, there were 105. “It’s not right in a country like Canada,” he told a town hall. “This has gone on for far too long.”

That marked the rosy opening of Act 1. His government pledged $1.8-billion toward providing clean drinking water and set March, 2021, as the deadline to end all advisories.

Suddenly, engineers and contractors were showing up in remote First Nations across the country, repairing or replacing water infrastructure that had been falling into disrepair for years. Neskantaga was no exception. Ottawa set a deadline of spring, 2018, for the construction of an $8.8-million water treatment plant in the community. It would prove to be a banner year for water delivery in First Nations communities: 38 long-term drinking-water advisories were lifted across the country, nearly double of any previous year. To promote its formidable progress, Indigenous Services Canada posted helpful timelines and maps online, showing that boil-water advisories had been lifted in 79 communities since the Liberals came to power.

Neskantaga, however, was not among them. A contractor failed to meet the 2018 deadline. Canada switched contractors only to see the new treatment plant fail after a few months of operation, forcing the community to evacuate nearly 200 residents to Thunder Bay.

The curtain lifted on Act 2. For every advisory lifted, a new one seemed to crop up somewhere else. Progress sputtered, then reversed. In 2020, nine advisories were lifted and another 13 added, according to an Auditor-General’s report.

Some stretch in timelines could be understood, given the sheer scope of the projects, remote sites, unforgiving weather, the lead time needed for construction, and training requirements. And, most recently, the pandemic.

In late 2020, then-Indigenous services minister Marc Miller conceded the obvious. The government would not meet Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 commitment.

And that brings the country to the cusp of Act 3. The initial, overly optimistic timeline has been deleted from the government website. Government documents suggesting all advisories would be lifted by a new date, 2026, were promptly disavowed by Mr. Miller in an interview with The Globe.

So what was the new target? He wouldn’t say. That is certainly one way to avoid missing a deadline, and accountability. A goal without a deadline is no goal at all, just a vague intention. Last April, Mr. Miller’s replacement at Indigenous Services, Patty Hajdu, told The Canadian Press she hoped to have all advisories lifted “before 2025.”

Since 2015, 137 advisories have been lifted, but another 31 remain in 27 different communities. Neskantaga, despite having a new treatment plant in place, still does not have potable water. Residents say their brown-tinged tap water looks like ginger ale. Showering can cause itchy sores. To drink and cook, they retrieve four-litre jugs shipped in by plane. Their boil-water advisory, Canada’s longest running at nearly 28 years old, continues.

The time has come for the Liberals to make a resolution, and stick to it. That should start with a deadline: end all boil-water advisories by the end of 2023. The government must meet that commitment, if it is to show Indigenous people that it takes the important task of reconciliation seriously.

For generations of Indigenous peoples, Ottawa’s bad habits of deceit, delay and neglect have come to be viewed not just as defining characteristics, but as the fundamental story of this country. That arc of tragedy must be rewritten.