Friday, June 14, 2024

Trudeau's Clean Water For First Nations Promise


Yesterday I was reading an article about a various forms of colonialism and it mentioned Canada's failure to provide First Nations with clean drinking water on their reserves.  This was something that I'd made efforts to find out about in the past.  Trudeau had made the promise in his first election as leader of the Liberal Party.  I knew they'd started to work on the problem but then I had difficulty finding out what happened.  

In 2015, Justin Trudeau, then campaigning for the country’s top job, made an ambitious promise to end the scourge of unsafe water in more than 100 First Nations communities across the country. But today the federal minister overseeing the issue acknowledges the government has missed its March deadline on its own five-year promise, and says he has “no credible excuse” for how communities that have gone decades without clean water still lack access.


As a consequence of colonial-era laws, Indigenous communities have been barred from funding and managing their own water treatment systems, and the federal government bears responsibility for fixing problems.


Certain communities, like Curve Lake, have issues with E coli in their water. Others, like Grassy Narrows, struggle with a legacy of toxic heavy metals, a remnant of negligent industry. In some cases, water is tainted by parasites and bacteria that occur naturally. In others, reactions between organic material and chemicals used to purify water can create unsafe water.

In consequence, the government issues advisories warning against using the water, and some have been in place for decades. The community of Neskantaga in northern Ontario, has been under a water advisory since 1995, researchers found, despite having a water treatment plant. In Manitoba, Shoal Lake 40’s water advisory has been in place since 1997. Plans for a water treatment plant were scrapped in 2011 after the federal government balked at the cost of the project.

In those communities, children have sores and skin diseases like eczema. Others struggle with gastrointestinal disorders.


Since he first took office, Trudeau’s government has made significant progress on the issue, investing more than C$2bn. In 2016, there were 105 communities with long-term drinking water advisories in place –meaning the water had been unsafe to use or consume for at least a year. As of late April, that number is down to 52 advisories in 33 communities.

The federal government says the figure remains high because of delays arising from the coronavirus pandemic, and it has pledged another C$1.5bn in funding.

But a scathing report from Canada’s auditor general at the end of February found that the federal government had failed to invest sufficient resources in the task and that much of the work was lagging even before the pandemic hit.

“I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved,” the auditor general, Karen Hogan, told reporters, warning it would be years before some communities have their advisories lifted. “Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don’t believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021.”

The auditor also found that a number of the drinking water advisories that the government lifted were the result of interim measures rather than long-term upgrades.

And the crisis may run deeper. Experts caution that federal monitoring does not include wells, even though 20% of First Nations communities rely on them to supply water to most homes. Nor does the government track waterborne illnesses in First Nations communities, or potential deaths that could be related to water quality.

Notice the link to the auditor general's report:

3.20Overall, Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. Drinking water advisories remained a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.

3.21We found that the department was not on track to meet its target to remove all long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems on First Nations reserves by 31 March 2021. In December 2020, Indigenous Services Canada acknowledged that it would not meet this target. In addition, we found that although interim measures provided affected communities with temporary access to safe drinking water, some long-term solutions were not expected to be completed for several years.

This is all from 2021.  But let me see if I can find out what's happened since ...

Here's a AG report from this year about the poor quality of housing on FN territories ...

  • People in First Nations communities are 4 times more likely to live in crowded housing and 6 times more likely to live in housing in need of major repairs than non‑Indigenous people, according to Canada’s 2021 Census.
  • To close the housing gap, First Nations communities need 55,320 new housing units and repairs to 80,650 existing units, at an estimated cost of $44 billion, according to a 2021 report by the Assembly of First Nations.
  • Over the last 5 fiscal years, Indigenous Services Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation spent $3.86 billion on improving housing in First Nations communities. This funding supported building new homes, repairing existing homes, and increasing First Nations’ capacity to manage housing.
  • From 2018–19 to 2022–23, Indigenous Services Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation provided funding to build 11,754 new housing units and repair 15,859 existing units in First Nations communities. This represents 21% of the new housing units and 20% of the repairs to existing units needed to close the gap.
  • There was no meaningful improvement in housing conditions in First Nations communities. From 2015–16 to 2021–22, the percentage of homes in need of major repairs decreased from 20.8% to 19.7%, while the percentage of homes in First Nations communities that needed to be replaced increased from 5.6% to 6.5%.

Here's a page from the Canadian government trumpeting their accomplishments.

Here's a CBC News story about FN communities being awarded compensation for extensive water advisories.

After a years-long battle, the federal government opened the First Nations drinking-water settlement process in 2022, offering compensation to First Nations that have suffered for long periods under drinking-water advisories. 

"The settlement is about providing a new dawn for First Nations people on reserve who've gone too long without regular access to clean, safe drinking water." said Darian Baskatawang, an Associate with Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and Class Counsel for the First Nations Drinking Water Class Action Settlement.

This settlement compensates those affected by a lack of clean drinking water in First Nation communities between Nov. 20,1995, and June 20, 2021.

Finally, the Council of Canadians says that 26 reserves still have drinking water advisories in place:

Yet at any given time there are drinking water advisories in dozens of First Nations communities across Canada. The lack of clean, safe drinking water in First Nations is one of the greatest violations of the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation. 

While there has been progress in recent years, there are still 26 long term drinking water advisories on reserves including some that have been in place for more than 25 years. There is also a deficit in funding for the maintenance and operation of drinking water systems on reserves, which the Parliamentary Budget Officer identified as amounting to $138 million per year.

Instead, the Liberal government has been promoting public-private partnerships (P3s) as a solution. History has shown that P3s not only cost more, but they also lead to the privatization of water and a loss of community control and jobs. P3s are not the answer to the drinking water crisis in First Nations. 

The Council of Canadians fights for safe, clean water for everyone. We support Indigenous peoples’ right to self-government and self-determination. Greater control by and for First Nations over water is a basic step toward reconciliation, a requirement of  the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a necessary precondition to ending drinking water advisories in First Nations for good. 

It seems that Trudeau's Liberals made an effort.  It was in many ways a lackadaisical one, but it was still better than stephen harper's policy of tough water regulations combined with zero resources to achieve them.  Some genuine progress was made but it isn't over yet.


Purple library guy said...

Really, it's one of a few areas in which what Trudeau did was significantly better than nothing . . . which, really, is a rare thing in an era when usually your best hope is that the government won't make existing decent things worse and that hope is regularly dashed, often by centrists and ALWAYS by right wingers. So although it still needs improvement and follow-through, I don't feel like being too hard on him for this one . . . not when there are so many crappy things I DO feel like being hard on him for. Probably he did better on this file than any previous Canadian government, so.

thwap said...

Purple library guy,

Progress WAS made on this issue. [I'm agreeing with you agreeing with me.] I'm sure it could have been done better, and faster, but nonetheless, there was improvement.

More than will ever be done by the worthless asshole Poilievre, whose first thought upon hearing of the settlement for the Residential Schools atrocity was to muse outloud whether Canadians were going to get value for the money.

From what I'm hearing though, Trudeau has plenty of rotten policies up his sleeve for the FN. Further assaults on their sovereignty.

But on this clean water promise, I'd searched vainly for a bit to find an objective source describing what had been accomplished, didn't find anything, and then saw that article a couple of days ago and was moved to post.