A report from Auditor General Karen Hogan concludes that the support provided by Indigenous Services Canada has not been adequate to address long-standing problems with safe drinking water for many of Canada’s First Nations communities. Drinking water advisories remain a part of daily life in many of these communities, with almost half of existing long-term advisories in place for more than a decade.
Between 2015 and 2020, 100 long-term drinking water advisories in place on public water systems in First Nations communities were lifted. During the same time period, 60 remained in effect of which 28 were more than 10 years old. In December 2020, Indigenous Services Canada acknowledged that it would not meet its target of removing all long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems in First Nations communities by March 31, 2021.
The audit found that Indigenous Services Canada’s efforts have been constrained by an outdated policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of public water systems. In addition, the department has been working with First Nations to revise the legislative framework to provide First Nations communities with drinking water protections comparable to other communities in Canada.
“Indigenous Services Canada must work in partnership with First Nations to develop and implement a lasting solution for safe drinking water in First Nations communities, to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories, and prevent new ones from occurring,” said Hogan.
The report, Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities—Indigenous Services Canada, is available here.
In response to the report, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller issued the following statement:
“Indigenous Services Canada has received the Office of the Auditor General of Canada’s report on the important issue of safe drinking water in First Nations communities.
We welcome the five recommendations set out in the report, each of which align with actions our government is taking to ensure every First Nation community has access to clean water.
In November 2015, there were 105 long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserves across the country. First Nations, with support from Indigenous Services Canada, have since lifted 99 long-term drinking water advisories and many short-term advisories at risk of becoming long term have also been lifted, ensuring clean drinking water to First Nations.
Progress continues with work underway in lifting the remaining 57 long-term drinking water advisories, which affect 39 communities.
The impact of COVID-19 has been real and it has been substantial. We applaud First Nation leadership for all they have done to keep their communities safe in the face of a significant public health threat. As delays unfold, we continue to update project plans and pursue acceleration measures wherever possible.
We also recently announced significant investments for the operation and maintenance of drinking water systems so that communities are better positioned to detect problems early, resolve problems where possible, and prevent long-term advisories. This is work we plan to do in full partnership with communities.
Since 2016, the Government of Canada has invested over $3.5 billion into supporting access to clean water in First Nations communities. This funding marks a fundamental change in how the Government of Canada has historically worked with First Nations to ensure appropriate water and wastewater infrastructure. It represents a shift to focusing on the long-term sustainability of water infrastructure, of lifting up First Nations capacity, and investing in operation and maintenance so that clean drinking water can be the reality for generations to come.
In alignment with the Office of the Auditor General’s recommendations, we will continue to work with First Nations to conduct performance inspections of water systems annually, and asset condition assessments every three years, to identify deficiencies. We will work with communities to address those deficiencies, prevent recurring advisories, and invest in long-term solutions.
We will also continue to support operator training and retention, and will work with partners to expand capacity building and operator support for First Nations. As well, Indigenous Services Canada will continue to work collaboratively directly with First Nations as well as the Assembly of First Nations and other First Nations organizations, and other federal departments to develop a framework to address the concerns with the existing Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act.
Still, we realize more work needs to be done, and value input from the Office of the Auditor General and other observers. We will continue to work in concert with First Nations partners to improve water infrastructure on reserves and support access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water.”