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Water Today Title January 23, 2021

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First Nation water

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WT staff

The transciption below has been edited for clarity and length.

WT- Hello, Minister. Thank you for doing this.

Minister Miller - A pleasure to be here.

WT- My first question relates to the press release issued by your department announcing that 1.5 Billion dollars would be allocated to fix water and wastewater systems in First Nations communities. Can you tell me if this is new money or is this a repackaging of other funds and other announcements?

Minister Miller - No, it's new money. I think one of the realizations that we've made over the last few months is that the support that First Nations are asking for in and around water - which is an essential service that most of us take for granted - was one that needed to go well beyond the spring 2021 deadline and signal to communities that the important area of asset management for critical infrastructure had the full backing of the Government of Canada. So recognizing. the challenges that we face and the work that still needs to be done in the context of the difficult conditions of COVID to ensure that we're supporting communities that are working really hard to build these critical assets. There is money to accelerate that, to support them through the long term for things like operation, maintenance, things that have always been asked for by First Nations communities.

For the parameters of lifting the water advisories, I couldn't give them the certain backing of my ministry, and so this is new money and it's in addition to the 2.2 Billion or so that has been announced throughout the last five years to help communities resolve boil water advisories.

WT- I'd like to address some of that. In the 2019 budget there was $739 million given over five years and $184 ongoing, is that spent already? Sort of how does that work? What happened to that much money and and why is this announcement on top of that?

Minister Miller -
No, it will dovetail into our commitment to water allocation. This new money will comprise an expanding of the authorities necessary to support communities in the long term. And that really is the backing that we want to give those communities. This is not limited to those who are still trying to get off long term water advisories or those that are struggling to keep short term water advisories from becoming long term after a year, but to all communities throughout the lifetime of the assets in question.

This is something I heard time and time again as we get down to sort of the more unique individual situations that communities will face in the spring of 2021 in terms of those that are left, and there's about a dozen of those.

I don't want to generalize about them, but the comments that I kept hearing were that this spring 2021 deadline - while ambitious and important for all Canadians to see the federal government meet - was only one part of the puzzle in supporting Indigenous communities throughout their needs, particularly critical infrastructure.

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WT- So just to be clear, this, $1.5 is on top of the $739 million that's already been spent and allocated over a five year period. So this this would bring us into the 2.3 territory. Is that why you're saying 2.2 billion?

Minister Miller - No, let's back up because you mentioned the budgetary period of 2019. What I am quoting to you is the number up to date which was 2.2 billion plus the 1.5 that was announced in the fall economic statement.

WT- Thanks for clarifying that. I'm also wondering if you can tell my viewers, where the government's Infrastructure Plan comes into this? In press releases and on websites, I read right after I read the Fall budget announcement from Indigenous Services, there always seems to be mention of the long term Infrastructure Plan. Is this new money included in that plan too, or is it separate and seen as Indigenous Services part and sent over to you. Can you explain a bit about that?

Minister Miller - It's an excellent question, I think, and indeed it's understandable that people could get confused because we're talking about very, very large numbers. I think, and as you know well, because your media's dedicated to this, there's a massive under capitalization in infrastructure in Indigenous communities in Canada.

That is the reality of Canada today, however unacceptable people feel it is, that is the reality. The amounts here are dedicated to dealing with an equally unacceptable situation, with critical water infrastructure assets. And so getting the commitment of the government of Canada to eliminate the infrastructure gap by 2030 goes to supporting communities and their infrastructure plans and their priorities, and that can be the wide range of infrastructure in communities, which notably includes housing, schools, hospitals and the likes. And so this new funding, while it is very important, is a very small part of it.

WT- Ok, so just so I'm clear with the viewers, there's an amount announced through the Infrastructure Plan and the $2.2 billion that we're discussing with Indigenous Services, is not part of that Infrastructure Plan. Is it just some sort of notation. I'm trying to be clear with my viewers about what the difference is between the Infrastructure Plan money and the Water and Wastewater money.

Minister Miller - You'd have to point me to what exactly you're referring to when you say Infrastructure Plan, because when you talk about infrastructure, we try to paint the entire portrait of infrastructure needs in Indigenous communities. It's a wide array of needs that include, as I mentioned earlier, schools, hospitals, other key infrastructure, including water, assets, roads and those fall within Indigenous Services in part, but also in other envelopes such as CMHC in the case of housing for example. And then various envelopes when we start talking about needs that are in the far north, namely with the Inuit and then through territorial arrangements or direct relationships, sometimes with the land claim holders. So I just want to make sure that we're talking about the same portrait of infrastructure needs.

And I'd have to look at what you're referring to. Let me simply say that, the $2.2 billion is allocated because it has become such a dedicated aspect of critical infrastructure for First Nations since we said hat we are going to eliminate the long term water advisories. It is something that's been put in a separate category, because people want to know more about it , but it's a very small part of overall infrastructure assets in these communities.

WT- Ok, I understand. Also, when this money is announced, it's always referred to as water and wastewater. I'm wondering, is there a clear definition of how much for wastewater and how much for drinking water? I'm always curious when I see the waste water tagged on sort of how does that work?

Minister Miller - Again,that's an excellent question because, you know, as we've engaged in our recent very fresh experience of that with a couple communities in particular, it is sometimes part and parcel of the solution. So it is not carved out into percentages in any neat way. As we work with communities on their infrastructure needs and plans, it becomes quite obvious that in the strict definition of eliminating a water advisory, for example, that may not necessarily comprise a wastewater project, but it may very well be at the same time an immense priority for the community in question. So that is one of the reasons why we haven't broken down into percentages, because it varies from community, to community and depends on the state of the particular asset in question, but also in terms of the priorities that are identified to us according to need and our engagement with a community infrastructure plan.

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WT- I'd like to end this short interview with an interesting question. I would like to discuss, if I could, the recent CBC article on these third party investigations into the business practices of consultants and engineers.

There was a letter sent to you by Chief Moonias, where he was asking for your department to look into consultants and engineers, and you had replied that, yes, your department's going to look into consultants and engineers, and I was wondering is this just something that's specific to Chief Moonias' band or is this something that you are looking into, in all of the communities, the idea of consultants and engineers and sort of the value you get for money? Can you talk a bit about that for our viewers.

Minister Miller - And it's important. It's no surprise that the Neskantaga people have had a number of challenges and sadly, and I would stress that the federal government has its responsibility in the situation in Neskatanga, a quarter of a century is entirely unacceptable, when you're looking to find the source of why this has gone wrong.

Understandably, the community has identified a number of sharp practices by some of the contractors that had gone in and in behaved in a way or perhaps not done a number of things in terms of the implementation of their contract and to the standards or the acceptability of leadership in Neskantaga. I undertook to do that investigation in partnership with them, and they are currently finalizing the terms and conditions of that investigation. It is rightly targeted at what has gone on in Neskantaga, and I've had a couple calls with the chief where they detailed some of that, and it was highly alarming to me. To Chief Moonias' credit, he identified that as something that he wanted expanded to other communities. So that is something in the terms of conditions which we're currently hammering out together that we will look into.

So two things that we can right, find where the problem was and make sure that this type of practice, any sharp practice by contractors, third party contractors, does not happen again. So we don't see these mistakes repeating themselves. The investigation is not underway, we haven't finalized the conditions,but I think we're quite close. Obviously, I'm cognizant of the fact that the community is making preparations to go back to Neskantaga as the water is flowing and being tested currently. So I don't want to precipitate that. But it is something we will want to do in the relatively near future to see if that is the best practice in that region.

WT- I hear several other chiefs are making statements similar to Chief Moonias, if I were to tell them 'if you feel this is going on in your community, you can contact Minister Miller and and let him know this is going on'. Will they get the same sort of response as Chief Moonias did.

Minister Miller - Look absolutely. Indigenous Services Canada has expertise in water and has people that can help, but we don't do the building. And that should be clear. It's something that is done in partnership with the community, and if there's a water authority in the particular region in question, in partnership with them. What we're looking for in the long term, is really to have more self-determination in these communities over their water assets because it's important to improve outcomes as underlined in the Atlantic Water Authority that we inaugurated in the summer. We're not there yet in a number of areas, but I can understand the immense frustration that people feel when they feel like they've been had , particularly with something that is as critical as water. I gave you a long answer to say essentially, yes, absolutely. Please reach out to me or my team, because it's something we'll be looking into and we'll want to at least make people aware when they contract to do work for what is so important.

WT- Certainly, I'll be letting them know that you're up for these types of conversations. Mr. Miller, I'd like to thank you for doing this, and I wish you the very best.

Minister Miller - Thanks for having me on. Have a good day.

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