Manitoba chiefs push Ottawa on use of ‘sub-standard’ contractors
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This article was published 25/02/2021 (535 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Manitoba chiefs say it’s time the Trudeau government put less emphasis on cost when fixing drinking-water systems, or they’ll keep falling into disrepair.
A federal audit Thursday found Indigenous Services Canada might not have an accurate picture of how many reserves lack clean drinking water, as it doesn’t prioritize communities with recurring, short-term problems.
For example, one reserve wasn’t deemed to have a long-term advisory — and thus won’t be prioritized for repairs — because it instead logged 31 separate short-term advisories over the course of five years, with one lasting nearly six months.
The federal government aims to provide clean water in all situations, but only measures this goal based on long-term advisories, which last a full 12 months.
Manitoba chiefs say one reason why water systems fail is work from shoddy contractors they feel ISC made them choose, because of a “value-for-money” policy that prioritizes the cheapest bid for capital projects.
“We are being victimized by our treaty partners,” Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels wrote in a Thursday statement. “For too long, First Nations have been forced to work with sub-standard firms, just so the federal government can save a few bucks.”
The SCO is calling for more autonomy over how infrastructure projects are funded, and an inquiry into the issue.
For example, Peguis First Nation inked a $13-million contract for water treatment and expanding a sewage lagoon with an Ontario firm it later learned had been accused by multiple reserves of excessive fees and deficient work.
In December, a coalition led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism revealed Peguis cut ties with the contractor in May 2020.
“We were forced to take the lowest bid, because the federal government had indicated that if we don’t, then there could be a legal challenge from (the cheaper contractor),” Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said in a Thursday interview.
Hudson said his band preferred a Manitoba firm whose bid cost an extra $180,000. He argues that would have been far cheaper than the costs added added to the project, which started in April 2018 and is now two months past due.
“ISC does dictate to the First Nations, because they are the ones who control that money,” Hudson said. “When are we going to be put on an equal playing field?”
Interlake chiefs have raised similar concerns about housing built on their reserves after the 2011 flood evacuation.
ISC Minister Marc Miller said Thursday the federal government did a rethink of its policies last year, such as changing a decades-old funding formula and seeking to ensure repairs don’t fall apart in a few years.
“This isn’t about going with the cheap option; it’s about going with the option that suits the First Nation,” Miller said, in response to questions from the Free Press.
“I will concede that I’ve heard some alarming stories,” he said. “I’m very much open to re-examining not only the policy, but how it’s put into effect”