The federal government is expanding the number of First Nations water systems that it vows will have clean drinking water by 2021.
On Tuesday, Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott announced the government had identified another 24 long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations that weren’t previously supported by Indigenous Affairs.
It is now committing to support those systems, adding to the long list of First Nations drinking water advisories it needs to solve.
The Liberals committed to solving the First Nations water crisis by 2021 through ensuring all publicly-funded water systems on reserve produce clean drinking water. The government undertook a system-by-system analysis to identify the scope of the issue. During that analysis, Indigenous Affairs found another 24 long-term drinking water advisories that it hadn’t previously known about. Some of those affected community centres and nursing stations, meaning the water from the systems in buildings was unsafe, the minister said.
That brings the total number of long term water advisories on public systems on reserves across the country to 91 — an increase of about 35 percent.
“That’s not a small addition, we believe it’s very important,” minister Philpott told VICE News over the phone Tuesday.
“These are in fact systems that anyone would consider to be public facilities, so therefore we take responsibility to support communities in addressing these advisories,” the minister said.
“As we dug deeper into this, we realized it made sense to include that whole list,” she added.
The 24 new long term advisories were added after an analysis by Indigenous Affairs found there were 247 drinking water systems on First Nations reserves across the country that should be financially supported by the federal government, but had instead fallen through the cracks. Most of those systems were working just fine, but there were others that weren’t producing safe drinking water.
As of Tuesday’s announcement, the federal government has pledged to fund more than 1,000 water systems on reserves across the country.
At a VICE Canada-hosted town hall ahead of the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau first made his commitment to solve drinking water advisories on all First Nations across Canada. The Liberal government has since said it will solve all advisories on public systems. That means undrinkable tap water in gas stations, for instance, would not fall under the commitment. There are about 500 water systems on First Nations that are privately managed.
According to a list the department provided to VICE News, 15 of the 24 new long term advisories were found on First Nations in Ontario — the epicentre of the water crisis. The list includes water systems on First Nations like Bearskin Lake, which hasn’t had clean drinking water at its community centre since 2006.
'PEOPLE ARE GETTING SICK'
In reaction to the news on Tuesday, former Bearskin Lake Chief Rosemary McKay told VICE News the water at the community centre hasn’t been drinkable for as long as she can remember. The band office supposedly has safe drinking water, but she doesn’t trust it. Without clean water from the taps, residents buy bottles of water out of pocket.
“It’s about time,” McKay said in response to Tuesday’s announcement that the government will be funding the water system at her community centre.
“They waited too long, that’s my reaction,” she continued. “People are getting sick, people can’t cook nutritious foods, they have to wait on the water delivery.
Many northern First Nations rely on pick-up trucks to make water deliveries on rough back roads. When Bearskin Lake needed a new truck, McKay said she had a “huge fight” with Indigenous Affairs to get them to fund it.
The federal government says it’s on track to solve all First Nations water advisories on public systems by March 2021, although a Parliamentary Budget Office report from December found the government had not budgeted enough money to solve the crisis. That report was from before the government added the 24 new long term advisories.
VICE News has taken a close look at the First Nations water crisis in a week-long investigative series, published in September, that found the number of water advisories had not changed significantly since the Liberals took power. At the time, there were about 120 First Nations across the country that didn’t have clean tap water to drink.
Asked whether she thought the government could keep its promise, McKay said it depends “how much work they want to put into it,” adding that her community needs to install underground pipes to deliver tap water — an expensive feat.
“There are lots of issues that come with contaminated water,” McKay said. “Water is a source of life. We have a beautiful lake that we can’t even drink from."