Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he takes responsibility for the fact that the Liberal government will fail in its election promise to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021.
“Today we’re making ourselves accountable. We’re making future governments accountable,” Miller said Wednesday at an Ottawa press conference.
“And while there have been many reasons for the delay, I want to state as clearly as possible… ultimately, I bear the responsibility for this, and I have the responsibility and the duty to get this done.”
It was a key promise Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made on his path to power during the 2015 election campaign.
Watch: NDP MP presses Miller on Neskantaga water crisis
Miller confirmed the Liberal government will not meet its March 2021 deadline despite 97 long-term boil-water advisories having been lifted in partnership with Indigenous communities since 2016. Fifty-nine advisories remain in place in 41 communities.
Miller said an additional $1.5 billion investment this year to tackle the problem, spelled out in this week’s fall economic statement, will “accelerate work” to ensure every First Nation reserve has safe and clean water. The funding is in addition to $2.1 billion the government has already committed to the project since 2016.
At an earlier technical briefing, representatives from Indigenous Services Canada told reporters they expect 22 long-term advisories in 10 communities — nine in Ontario, one in Saskatchewan — to still be in place after March.
But Miller expressed optimism that an additional 20 advisories could be lifted by the end of this month, and, if all goes well, the number of remaining advisories could be down to 12 by the spring.
While he would not announce a second deadline, Miller said he aims to provide projected completion dates in the coming months.
The target was ambitious “from the get-go,” Miller said, adding that Indigenous communities don’t want an “Ottawa-imposed deadline,” but rather a long-term commitment to tackle the systemic problems preventing reliable access to clean water.
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Imagine having to boil the water that you’re about to consume, every time
“If we had taken a cynical approach and said let’s just put all efforts into getting to spring 2021, this wouldn’t be a $1.5-billion investment. It would be… maybe a couple hundred million dollar investment just to get it done,” he said. “And that’s not right because communities want us to be there in the long term.”
Miller and his top department staffers said there were several different reasons for why the goal won’t be met, including the COVID-19 pandemic which “really changed everything,” the minister said.
The pandemic meant some projects lost a full construction season, he said, with some First Nations restricting access to their communities to protect the health and safety of members, delaying supplies and keeping out construction crews. Those were “life-saving decisions” the government respects, Miller said.
The minister also said shorter, warmer winters also made access to communities by winter roads more unpredictable, and said each boil-water advisory issue is unique in terms of the infrastructure needs of communities.
He stressed the government is not at all abandoning its commitment to ensure every individual on reserve has access to potable water, something most Canadians take for granted.
‘Imagine having to boil the water that you’re about to consume, every time’
“Imagine having to boil the water that you’re about to consume, every time you reach for a glass of water. Imagine doing this every day of your life, multiple times per day, for over 17 years,” he said, noting that was the reality for members of the Lac Seul First Nation in northern Ontario until a new water plant was completed and opened last February.
“It is also the current condition and the situation faced by the people of Neskantaga, in their case for 25 years,” he said of the First Nation community in Ontario that has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years. Its residents were evacuated from their homes in October after an oil sheen was discovered in its reservoir.
Miller defended Trudeau for imposing the timeline in the first place and for not having been upfront sooner that the promise wouldn’t be kept.
“As a Canadian, the prime minister did what would be expected of any leadership and said, ‘we want to get this done,’” Miller said of his party’s 2015 campaign promise.
The spring deadline was a “rallying cry for something that is much more profound,” he said, in order to focus attention on the under-investment in essential services in some Indigenous communities.
Trudeau “deserves a lot of credit for saying that,” Miller said.
NDP leader challenges PM on broken promise
The minister noted that the mandate letter he received from Trudeau when he joined cabinet last year made it clear that it was among his top priorities to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories on reserve.
“It is my responsibility to get it done,” he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called out Trudeau during question period Wednesday for breaking his commitment to Indigenous people.
He quoted the words of nine-year-old Bee Moonias from the Neskantaga First Nation, who told CBC News she sometimes feels like they don’t exist and are ghosts.
“Could the prime minister look Bee Moonias in her eyes and tell her why this country has not provided clean drinking water?” he asked.
Trudeau responded that his government has worked with Indigenous communities, including the Neskantaga nation, to ensure they are supported through the pandemic.
“In terms of drinking water, decades of neglect led to the unacceptable reality of First Nations on reserve not having access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water,” he said.
“We remain aggressively committed to lifting all long-term advisories and ensuring First Nations can have clean water now and into the future.”
With a file from The Canadian Press