Bennett confirms Trudeau's commitment to drinking water for First Nations

Carolyn BennettIndigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett has reaffirmed that the Trudeau government intends to make good on its promise to ensure safe drinking water to all First Nations within five years. In a CBC Radio The Current interview yesterday, she was asked directly, "Is five years still a realistic goal?" Bennett replies, "I think you have to set goals, you have to set targets. And, you know, as was pointed out to me at the AFN meeting, if we can get 25,000 Syrians here to Canada because of political will and everybody putting their shoulder to the wheel, I think we can get this done too."

More fully, Bennett commented, "How do we make sure that the solutions are long term?‎ It's not only the infrastructure, it's making sure that community members are trained up to be able to maintain those systems. It's also the exciting partnerships we are seeing with some municipalities. It's either the First Nations helping supply the water to the municipality, the municipality help supplying the water to a First Nation. It's about using new exciting systems, some not as expensive as people thought. But I also hear terrible stories of boil water advisories because the person who had managed the plant for years and years isn't allowed there now because he doesn't have the paperwork. So you get a power outage and then ‎it takes 12 or 18 hours for somebody to arrive from the mainland and by then it's a boil water advisory. So there's how‎ we train and how we listen to First Nations about the kind of training programs that would be appropriate for them so that they get to direct how they are able to achieve clean drinking water for their people."

This pledge goes back to this past election. On Oct. 5, Justin Trudeau stated, "We have 93 different communities under 133 different boil water advisories across the country. [Serpent River First Nation] Chief Isadore Day has called for within five years there should be zero, and I've told the Chief and I've told First Nations many times, we agree with that, and a Canadian government led by me will address this as a top priority because it's not right in a country like Canada that this has gone on for far too long."

The Liberal government has not yet assigned a budget figure to this pledge, but a 'National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems' conducted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in 2011 estimated that it would cost $4.7 billion over a ten year period to meet the department's protocols for water and wastewater services for First Nations communities. That included an immediate $1.2 billion to deal with high-risk systems. As such, there should be a substantial allocation for First Nations water and sanitation in the 2016 federal budget (expected sometime between February and April) to meet the five year target.

With about 117 First Nation communities experiencing boil water advisories (when you include First Nations in British Columbia) and about 400 First Nation communities without a secure supply of drinking water, it will be a monumental task to ensure the right to water for First Nations. It is therefore disconcerting that the prime minister did not mention the right to water for Indigenous peoples in his Dec. 8 speech to the Assembly of First Nations, the Dec. 4 Speech from the Throne, nor in his Nov. 13 mandate letter to the Minister of Indigenous Affairs beyond his instruction "improve essential physical infrastructure for Indigenous communities including improving housing outcomes for Indigenous Peoples."

CBC has reported though that at least a couple important steps will be made in this direction by the new government.

In a Dec. 29 news report it highlights, "Neskantaga First Nation, in northwestern Ontario, finally has a written commitment from the federal government to build a new water treatment plant in the remote community, which has been without safe tap water for 20 years. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett made a promise to fund the water treatment plant at a meeting earlier this month with Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias. The written confirmation of the commitment came in response to a media request from CBC News, after a flurry of meetings with department officials in the days leading up to the Christmas break."

That article notes that the funding for the design phase of this water treatment plant and for interim repairs to the old water treatment plant will be made available in budget year 2016-17.

Bennett has also announced that the federal government will contribute $10 million in a cost-sharing arrangement with the province of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg towards a road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. As CBC reports, "The road will facilitate the construction of a new water treatment plant in that community. It has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years."

For more on our Safe Water for First Nations campaign, please click here.

Further reading
Trudeau must ensure the right to water and sanitation for First Nations within five years (Oct. 31, 2015)
Council of Canadians calls on Trudeau to fulfill the right to sanitation for First Nations in Canada (Nov. 20, 2015)
Trudeau government commits to build road for Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (Dec. 16, 2015)

Photo: Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.