Chiefs are concerned the federal government’s pledge to end long-term boil-water advisories on First Nations could be delayed until after the March 2021 goal, leaving 63 communities across Canada, including two in Manitoba, unsure when their water systems will be safe.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, of the Southern Chiefs Organization, said he’s heard from Ottawa that the spring deadline might not be met. The Liberal government's throne speech last week noted the need to end advisories, but a clear time frame was omitted.
Daniels says that a further delay would be unacceptable, and an indication of poor planning and communication between the federal Department of Indigenous Services and the regional departments responsible for water stewardship and infrastructure.
"It’s about priority here," said Daniels, who pointed out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in 2015 to end on-reserve boil-water advisories.
A senior government official told CBC News the government’s pledge was complicated by COVID-19, but Daniels said the pandemic could not be blamed for the "negligence" that preceded it.
"This issue could have been dealt with long ago by successive governments," he said.
The Free Press reached out to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller for comment Tuesday, but did not receive a response.
Since Trudeau’s election in 2015, the Liberals have lifted 91 long-term water advisories, including those which had been in effect in seven Manitoba communities. Currently, per the federal government’s database, there are two First Nations in the province which are still under such advisories: Tataskweyak Cree Nation at Split Lake and Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation at Birch River.
Shoal Lake No. 40, which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, has been under a boil water advisory since 1997. The City of Winnipeg’s drinking water originates in Shoal Lake.
Daniels said that even in communities where water treatment facilities have been built, they have been poorly planned and not suited for the growing populations using them. A more collaborative approach would have helped avoid those shortfalls, he said.
"Who has the highest interest in ensuring our quality of life? First Nations," he said. "The province can’t do that for us, the federals can’t do it for us.
"It’s a systems problem," he added.
Miller has said he still hopes the spring 2021 goal will be met, and Daniels said he certainly hoped that would be the case.
"We expect the government to do what it says they’ll do. If they’re going to create promises, they need to fulfil them, and they haven’t taken the hard action that needs to occur."
"Water quality can dictate quality of life," he said. "Any parent or Canadian in our country would not want to live their lives boiling water, and there are all kinds of health impacts created as a result of this.
"Those are our children and our families that are going to have the lived experience of not having good quality water in their community," he said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.