Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller held a press conference on December 2 to confirm that Canada will miss its March 2021 deadline to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities.
The pandemic has presented a host of new challenges, obstacles, and delays, Miller said during a news conference on Parliament Hill, noting that COVID-19 has only served to further magnify existing socioeconomic gaps between First Nations and non-Indigenous people.
Miller said, however, that he believes First Nations communities are more interested in maintaining a firm commitment from the federal government, and are not hyper-focused on “an Ottawa-imposed deadline.”
“Because of COVID many projects lost a full construction season,” said Miller. “But one thing has not changed — the right for every individual to have access to potable water. I have the responsibility and the duty to get this done.”
At the news conference, Indigenous Services Canada pledged an additional $1.5 billion to accelerate work on lifting First Nations water advisories. Since 2015, the federal government has spent some $1.65 billion on 626 water and wastewater projects in 581 First Nations. Despite missing the upcoming deadline, much progress has been made to lift drinking water advisories. Since 2015, Indigenous Services Canada has lifted 97 long-term drinking water advisories and prevented 171 short-term advisories from becoming long-term.
Other water progress challenges during 2020 involved the availability of supplies and the reluctance of some First Nations communities to welcome new construction crews during a pandemic. Even consistently obtaining qualified staff for water upgrade projects in remote communities has been difficult, said Miller.
Miller said he wants to ensure that upgrades made in communities are not just patchwork repairs, but opportunities to make lasting change for water infrastructure so that communities can have access to clean, reliable drinking water for generations to come.
Every community with a long-term advisory will have a dedicated team and plan in place, said Miller, who also announced $616.3 million over six years, and $114.1 million per year ongoing thereafter to support daily operations and maintenance for water infrastructure on reserves.
Additionally, $309.8 million will be allocated to support and accelerate ongoing work to lift all long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserves by helping to respond to project delays, including those due to COVID-19. These investments will also enhance services provided through technical support organizations, such as the Circuit Rider Training Program and centralized water and wastewater hubs in Ontario.
Miller recognized the recent water crisis facing Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario. “Every boiled water advisory is unique,” he said. The community of some 300 residents have been evacuated for more than 50 days in the face of a water crisis. In addition to recent contamination in the local water reservoir and delays around treatment plant upgrades, the community has been under a water advisory for 25 years — Canada’s longest.