Indigenous Services Canada is not up to the task to fix drinking water on reserves

Hill Times March 8, 2021

“When it comes to the safety of drinking water, residents of First Nations communities do not benefit from a level of protection comparable to that of people who live off reserves,” reported the auditor general in 2005. The Council of Canadians, meanwhile, declared “little progress with First Nations drinking water” in 2012. In 2016, Human Rights Watch reported “a primary contributor to this inertia is the legal discrimination that exists related to the regulation and protection of drinking water for First Nations reserves. … The Canadian government’s failings with respect to water and sanitation constitute a violation of these rights for many First Nations persons living on reserves in Ontario.”

In 2019, Policy Options said: “First Nations water problems a crisis of Canada’s own making.” In 2021, Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine reported the “auditor general ‘disheartened’ by failure to meet First Nations drinking water targets,” while Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) officially reported that 59 First Nations communities are currently on long-term drinking water advisories.

Is it a problem of not enough people working on the clean water file? No. According to the Treasury Board’s GC Infobase, ISC planned for about 200 full-time equivalents to work on water and wastewater this year.

Is it a problem of not enough money? Probably. But the funds allocated to communities to build and fix water infrastructure is rarely spent in full by the department, and the funds take too long to get out the door. The $150-million recently touted by the Minister is for 2026-2027, but it seems the department carries over significant portions every year anyhow.

When hand-washing is our best defence in the midst of a pandemic, the federal government chose to stall its work on clean water for a portion of its citizens. The pandemic is the reason this file stalled? It’s like saying ‘bleeding’ is a reason not to bandage. It’s ludicrous. This stall tactic simply would not have been allowed in Walkerton, Ont., or Ottawa, or any other Canadian community served by the provinces or territories.

It is a problem of outdated and colonial procedures? The answer is yes, a resounding yes. A First Nations community submits a lengthy plan to build or replace a water treatment plan to the department, then a more detailed plan, and then maybe revisions to that plan as demanded by federal bureaucrats, and years pass. It’s takes so long to get a plan approved by the powers that be in Ottawa that the engineering firms and construction companies have long gone. And the community is forced to start again in the years-long process.

And here’s the root issue. The feds don’t fund the basic infrastructure in communities or the maintenance. They might cut the ribbon on the water treatment plant, but there’s no water pipes to houses. There’s no wastewater infrastructure to sewers, no fire hydrants, and no water fountains. There’s also the lack of insulated houses so any pipes to houses would just freeze. So don’t get sucked into the “59 communities” farce.

A barrier is the pure nature of bureaucracy and its inability to change—apparently the policies on water infrastructure funding are 30 years old. They might as well be using faxes, while they’re at it. And it’s partly because they haven’t received a clear and fully funded mandate to truly resolve water and infrastructure issues—they have received Band-aid solutions to keep the First Nations quiet enough. Somewhere in the machinery of government, somewhere in the “The Centre,” the request for the basics of life for First Nations gets watered down to discriminatory, poor service.

Here’s an idea: let’s put the Indigenous Services Canada in charge of water and infrastructure for Ottawa residents and Parliament Hill. Anybody want to do this? I didn’t think so.