First Nation Water
PBO SAYS LIBERALS MUST INCREASE BUDGET TO MEET FIRST NATIONS WATER PROMISE
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By Michelle Moore
The office that oversees parliamentary spending released a report last Thursday citing the need to increase spending significantly if the Liberal Government is to keep its promise to end long-term boil water advisories in First Nations communities by 2021.
The report, Budget Sufficiency for First Nations Water and Wastewater Infrastructure, estimates the minimum investment at $3.2 billion. That includes $1.8 billion for drinking water systems and $1.4 billion for wastewater, as well as an estimated $361 million for operating and maintenance costs. Because untreated wastewater can affect drinking water quality the two cannot be seen as independent from one another.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) indicates that the 2016 budget covers no more than 70% of what is estimated will be necessary to bring First Nations Water and Wastewater Infrastructure up to par with off reserve conditions. That number goes as low as 54% if one uses the population growth factor estimated by Neegan Burnside Ltd (NB) at 2.8% rather than those currently used by the PBO at 1.7% calculated by R.V. Anderson Associates Limited (RVA).
Federal spending on water and wastewater infrastructure comes from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada's (INAC) Capital Facilities and Maintenance Program and Health Canada's Drinking Water Safety Program. INAC is currently being split into two new departments: Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs with Minister Jane Philpott and Minister Carolyn Bennet as the department heads respectively.
According to INAC, from the 77 long-term boil water advisories in 2015, there are "67 long-term drinking water advisories that remain in effect on public systems financially supported by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC)." There have also been "30 long-term drinking water advisories lifted from public systems financially supported by ISC; [while] 20 long-term advisories have been added."
On the other hand Health Canada statistics reveal there "were 100 long-term drinking water advisories and 47 short-term DWAs in 102 First Nations communities south of the 60th parallel as of October 31, 2017." The PBO report explains the discrepancy between Health Canada and INAC numbers may reflect the difference in the way they measure drinking water advisories.
There are 807 drinking water systems servicing 560 First Nations communities, 39% of those systems are considered high risk and 34% are considered medium risk. Of the wastewater facilities, 14% are considered high risk and 51% are categorized as medium risk. These numbers suggest that infrastructure overall is on decline.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report concluding that Canada had violated First Nations' right to safe water by not maintaining water systems. It explained the problem may be that "provincial and territorial regulations governing safe drinking water and sanitation, which operate to protect the health of most Canadian residents, do not extend to First Nations reserves."
Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director for First Nations Child and Family Caring Society said "water is an essential part of human life. Most of us could only live for a few days without water but First Nations children across this country are unable to access a glass of clean drinking water in every 1 out of 6 First Nations communities." She added "I've seen children and teenagers who when they use the water, they develop sores on their skin, feel nauseated, or don't want to wash their hair because it makes their heads itchy."
Blackstock spoke of the Spirit Bear Plan which requests that the PBO look at all costs necessary to achieving equality for First Nations, not just water, but early child development, education, health and more. The Spirit Bear Plan, which was approved by all chiefs present at the assembly last week would ideally have First Nations oversee the transition at INAC to ensure it moves away from its colonial past.
In the case of long-term boil water advisories, Blackstock said that "in some communities they've been on boil water alert for 20 years, and it's a fallacy to say it's just remote communities." She mentioned the First Nations community of Tyendinaga, an hour and a half from Toronto that had been on BWA since 2008 and only got a new water plant last year.
In May 2017, the government announced $34.7 million was already being used for projects including new wells, repairs, training and building new water treatment plants for eighteen Ontario First Nations communities including Shoal Lake 40 on the border of Ontario and Manitoba. Band Manager for Shoal Lake 40, Frances Green said before the work on the water systems can start the work on the road has to be completed. Construction is underway on Freedom Road which would provided all-season access from the community to the TransCanada highway.
Media Relations officer for Shoal Lake 40, Cuyler Cotton said that the lack of overall funding in the budget was not new news, referring to a 2011 Neegan Burnside Ltd. study that assessed First Nations water and wastewater systems and associated costs for INAC. He said "the years of neglect pile up some outstanding bills so what it takes is political will, it's not always the money, it's the willingness, the resolve to say this is not acceptable in our country, period."
Cotton said the small scale water systems that were built in the 1990's failed to meet adequate water standards when they were first built. He said "there are children who have lived their whole lives under boil water order; every time you want to get cup of a tea, a glass of juice, bathe the baby… if there's a solution it's that Canada has to fix itself and live up to their mythology. We need to start walking the talk, making the commitments, spending the dollars."
Speaking to me from his hotel room Cotton said he could see the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that has water as it's central theme. When the museum opened its doors in 2014, community members occupied and demonstrated as Shoal Lake 40, only 2 hours away, had already been on advisory for 16 years. He said at a cost of $400 million to build, the money would have been better used elsewhere
Currently water is brought to the community in large 5 gallon containers by barge or ice road. Cotton pointed out that the logistics would not be so difficult if the city of Winnipeg had not moved the community from the shore in the first place and then cut off the peninsula to set up their own water intake and aqueduct creating a man-made island.
In 2015, some First Nations communities decided to take matters into their own hands. The Safe Water Project is an initiative created by the Chiefs of Keewaytinook Okimakanak to empower communities to manage their own drinking water. Since the project started, the boil water advisories in Fort Severn First Nation, Deer Lake First Nation and Poplar Hill First Nation have ended. The project has recently been expanded to support 19 communities