Why are thousands of Manitobans using slop pails instead of flush toilets and hauling drinking water from town pumps instead of turning on their kitchen taps?
Ask the province's 11 Conservative MPs that question and you'll get the same answer.
There has been virtually no progress in the last year bringing modern sanitation to the 1,400 First Nation homes that lack it, meaning easily-preventable -- and costly -- illnesses such as influenza, diarrhea and skin rashes run rampant, and Third World conditions prevail in communities a few hundred kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Households of a dozen people or more share a slop-pail toilet, human waste is dumped in garbage piles behind homes, and many residents get by on less clean drinking water than international aid workers recommend during disasters.
Given current federal capital budget projections, it's a problem that federal staff admit won't get solved any time soon.
It's not clear if any Manitoba MPs in the government have visited any First Nations homes without indoor plumbing since the issue began making national and international headlines a year ago. It's also not clear whether any government MPs have raised the issue at national caucus meetings, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or during budget discussions.
Telephone calls and emails to the province's 11 Tory MPs over three days last week went largely unanswered.
Staff at Portage-Lisgar MP Candice Hoeppner's office called to say she was not available for an interview, and staff at Kildonan-St. Paul MP Joy Smith's office said the same.
Staff at the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the Provencher MP, emailed a statement echoing a similar email from federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan's office late last month when the minister cancelled a seven-minute telephone interview with the Winnipeg Free Press.
No one from the offices of the remaining eight Manitoba Conservative MPs responded at all to requests for interviews.
Two of Manitoba's Conservative MPs, Winnipeg South Centre's Joyce Bateman and Elmwood-Transcona's Lawrence Toet, have only been on the job six months. But others, including Winnipeg South MP Rod Bruinooge and St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover, have some knowledge of aboriginal issues, as both are Métis and both previously served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of Indian Affairs.
Other Tory MPs who did not respond include Steven Fletcher (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia), Merv Tweed (Brandon), Robert Sopuck (Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette) and James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake).
"That's just unacceptable," said Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose riding includes the Island Lake area and Oxford House First Nation, where hundreds of homes still lack modern sanitation. "It shows how off the radar screen such a critical issue for our own province is."
Northern Grand Chief David Harper, originally from the Island Lake reserve of Garden Hill, has estimated it will cost rougly $66 million to bring pipes or trucked water to all 800 homes in Island Lake that need it. That cash would also pay for renovations to each home to install toilets and tubs. In coming days, a much more precise needs and cost assessment is slated for completion by the Island Lake Tribal Council, using federal funding.
In a wide-ranging interview last month, regional staff from the Manitoba office of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said Island Lake's four reserves are all slated to get major capital cash for new water and sewer pipes over the next three years. Regional director Anna Fontaine said it is too early to tell how many of the 800 homes will get indoor plumbing under those projects.
In all, roughly $40 million has been set aside for water and sewer projects on Manitoba reserves in preliminary capital budgets for the coming three years. But that cash must be spread out over the province's 60-plus reserves, many of which have aging water and sewage treatment plants recently rated a "high-risk" to human health. Nine of those plants are on Ottawa's to-do list.
Federal Aboriginal Affairs staff say that within existing budgets, the indoor plumbing crisis at Island Lake and beyond will not get solved in the next five years.