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Trudeau won’t be able to keep his promise on clean water for First Nations, human rights groups warn

A new report by a coalition of human rights organizations contends Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not on track to fulfill his promise to end water advisories on all First Nations within five years, unless his government changes its current approach.

The joint report by the David Suzuki Foundation, Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians and Human Rights Watch reviewed nine First Nations in Northern Ontario — the epicentre of the water crisis — and found that of those, only three water advisories are likely to be lifted within the five year commitment.

Trudeau first made the commitment at a VICE-hosted town hall ahead of the 2015 election. Since then, Trudeau claims his government has lifted 14 long-term boil water advisories, however a recent VICE News fact-check found there was still undrinkable water on some of those reserves.

The government’s 2016 budget includes $141.7 million over five years starting in 2016-17 to monitor and test water on First Nations, and $1.8 billion over that same time period for water infrastructure on reserve.

“Almost one year after the budget announcement, the process for attaining clean and safe drinking water for First Nations remains flawed.”

“Almost one year after the budget announcement, the process for attaining clean and safe drinking water for First Nations remains flawed,” the report states. “Changes must be made to this complex process for the federal government to maintain progress toward its goal of ending long-term drinking water advisories. Funding alone will not resolve the issue.”

The report identifies seven key reasons for delays in solving the water crisis:

  • A complex and cumbersome federal process
  • No regulatory framework to govern drinking water on reserves
  • Insufficient infrastructure funding and allocation
  • Lack of adequate resources to operate and manage water treatment
  • Lack of First Nations decision-making power over resolving water issues
  • Little government transparency on its progress on the issue
  • No holistic approach to addressing water issues along with other issues on reserves

“From start to finish, First Nations drinking water projects often take between five and 10 years to complete at a minimum, with delays related to funding, seasonality and shifts in political priorities being far too common,” the report states.

The report examined nine Ontario First Nations that they had pre-existing relationships with, looking at data from conferences and interviewing tribal council representatives, water treatment operators, First Nations organizations and government officials. The report found that of the nine, only three stood a chance of solving their water issues within the five year commitment: Constance Lake, North Spirit Lake and Slate Falls Nation.

Indigenous Affairs told VICE News it had solved Constance Lake’s long term water advisory, but when pushed to explain why it was still listed on Health Canada’s website, admitted there was a new water advisory in place. According to the report, shortly after the First Nation lifted its advisory in 2016 by opening a new water treatment plant, the plant operator reported elevated sodium levels in the water. The operator said the problem could be fixed with $800,000 toward a reverse osmosis system.

The report found that three other First Nations — Wawakapewin, Northwest Angle No. 33 and Nibinamik First Nation — were unlikely to solve their water issues within five years. And said for three more — Anishinabe of Wauzhushk Onigum, Shoal Lake 40 and Obashkaandagaang — the future remains uncertain.

VICE visited Shoal Lake 40 in 2015 for a documentary about its water issues, and again in 2016 with the Prime Minister to examine how reserves are cut off from the rest of the country.

“We’ve been through this so many times in the past.”

The report found there are efforts underway to end Shoal Lake 40’s nearly two-decade water advisory, but there is uncertainty about whether that advisory would be lifted within five years.

Part of that uncertainty comes from the reserve’s long battle to build an access road, dubbed Freedom Road, that would connect the isolated island community to the Trans Canada Highway. The community uses a barge to reach the mainland in the summer, and an ice road in the winter. Once the road is built, materials for a water treatment plant could be transported overland rather than over the water, making it cheaper and faster to build.

Shoal Lake 40 has submitted an application to Indigenous Affairs for the design of a water treatment plant, but funding has not yet been approved, the report found. Contacted by VICE News, Chief Erwin Redsky said Indigenous Affairs had asked them to update their feasibility study again — something they’ve done several times since their attempts to build a water treatment plant began in the late 1990s.

“It’s just a process that Indigenous Affairs has in place, and it’s frustrating,” Chief Redsky told VICE News over the phone Wednesday. “We’ve been through this so many times in the past. I first got involved in 1998, and we were at that point selecting consultants to do the feasibility study, so basically we are back to square one.”

In the meantime, construction costs for the road have increased, leading the different levels of government to quibble over who should fund the additional cost, until the federal government finally agreed to cover it.

The memorandum of understanding between the First Nation and the three levels of government must be signed by next week or it diminishes the chances of there being any construction on the road this winter season, the chief said.

“It’s frustrating that these are the processes that are in place, and unless there are changes in the foreseeable future, I can’t see that the Prime Minister can deliver on the promise that he made,” Chief Redsky said.

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