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Canada’s Liberals Vow to End Rampant Boil Water Advisories on Reserves

"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,” Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau said.
Photo by Anthony Tuccitto

If he's elected prime minister on Oct. 19, Canada's Liberal leader would end the rampant, widespread issue of boil water advisories on First Nation reserves.

Justin Trudeau made the promise Monday night during a town hall hosted by VICE Canada following announcements earlier that day by two First Nations that have each endured boil water advisories for nearly 20 years.

"We have 93 different communities under 133 different boil water advisories across the country," Trudeau said when asked about the water issue.


"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," he said.

On Monday, two Ontario First Nations slammed the government for inaction on the problem.

Shoal Lake 40, an island reserve, has been on a boil water advisory for 17 years, with residents relying on a decrepit barge to shuttle bottled water from the mainland. Whenever the boat breaks down, the reserve declares a state of emergency. The First Nation has asked the federal government to fund an access road to make building a water treatment plant cheaper and easier, but the federal government has refused to commit to the road.

Shoal Lake 40 announced Monday they would take the issue to the United Nations in February, calling the federal government's lack of action a "human rights violation."

Related: Trudeau Promises $10 Million After Crowdfunding Effort Begins for First Nation's Access Road

Neskantaga has been under a boil water order for 20 years and had its drinking water rationed after its water treatment plant broke down in 1995. The community relies on bottled water deliveries, and residents complain of rashes and sores on their skin from bathing in the untreated water.


Neskantaga held a press conference in Toronto on Monday to draw attention to their reserve's two-decade ordeal, saying the debate raging in the Canadian election over the religious face covering known as a niqab is far less of a pressing issue than the problem of access to clean drinking water.

"We're seeing a debate nationally about whether a person should wear a piece of clothing, yet our First Nations communities are dying because of the poor water conditions in their communities," Chief Isadore Day said at a press conference Monday in Toronto.

"So to be clear, you are committing then within five years there will be clean water on all, for all First Nations?" VICE News Canada managing editor Natalie Alcoba asked Trudeau at the town hall.

"In all those 93 communities, yes," Trudeau replied.

It appeared to be the first time Trudeau had made the promise. However, the Liberal platform released on Monday did not specifically allocate funds to solve the problem.

Watch the VICE Canada documentary, Canada's Waterless Communities: Neskantaga here:

In the platform, the party allocates $20 billion over 10 years toward "green" infrastructure spending. Of that funding, $5.7 billion would go toward "green" infrastructure in the first five years. That infrastructure spending includes addressing the issues of clean drinking water and wastewater management, the Liberal party told VICE News in a statement Tuesday.

A 2011 report commissioned by Canada's Aboriginal Affairs department estimated it would cost $5 billion over 10 years to upgrade First Nations water and sewage systems. An immediate investment of $1.2 billion was needed immediately to get those reserves up to the department's standards, the report found.

VICE News asked exactly how much the Liberals would spend to ensure access to clean water on the 93 reserves within five years, given the $5 billion figure over 10 years from Aboriginal Affairs. The Liberal Party spokesperson did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment.

The 93 reserves on boil water advisories do not include British Columbia, which has a different system of water advisories.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont