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New Indigenous services minister talks progress and setbacks on the water crisis

Jane Philpott says that while the number of continuing boil water advisories is "discouraging," her government is still working to eliminate the long-term issues.

Late in August, in a surprise cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a move that had long been in the making: He was splitting the job of Indigenous Affairs minister into two roles.

Former Health Minister Jane Philpott would become Minister of Indigenous Services, while current minister Carolyn Bennett would transition to become Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

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Philpott has been touted as one of the most effective ministers in cabinet, and her move into the new job comes after the Trudeau government faces frustration from Indigenous communities due to a lack of progress on a variety of fronts.

The new Indigenous Services minister acknowledged that her government has not made enough progress on an issue that VICE News has focused on in a week-long series: The crisis of undrinkable water on First Nations reserves in Canada. The Trudeau government has promised to end all boil water advisories in five years and in an interview on Wednesday, Philpott said to look at the numbers two years in is “discouraging.”

“I want to hear their ideas, and I want them to dream and imagine what the future should look like for themselves and for their communities.”

Trudeau first made that commitment in a town hall with VICE before the election that propelled him to victory. At the time, the prime minister promised to end “all” advisories (which then totalled 133, excluding B.C) but has since honed in on just drinking water advisories under the federal government’s authority that have lasted longer than a year (which were then 77, excluding B.C.)

The government has claimed some progress on the file, eliminating 26 long-term drinking water advisories. The numbers, however, have remained stubbornly high, as some long-term advisories have come online since Trudeau’s election.

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Minister Bennett’s office refused multiple interview requests.

Philpott spoke to VICE News from her government’s cabinet retreat in Kelowna, British Columbia.

VICE News: Minister, what roles are you going to have at Indigenous Services and what are your responsibilities over First Nations water?

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott: So we are starting actually a brand new department, which I think is really important in the context of this conversation, so this will be the Department of Indigenous Services. There will be a whole range of possibilities within that, but it’s essentially supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit Canadians on issues related to service delivery on a broad range of subjects, whether it be from Child and Family Services to health care, to infrastructure and water projects to housing and food security — all kinds of different things. So as it relates to this particular conversation, obviously water and making sure that people have access to safe drinking water will be in my portfolio. This topic that we’re talking about today is I suspect going to be one of my very top priorities.

VN: I think one thing that a lot of people are still confused about is exactly how the mechanics of both yours and Minister Bennett’s jobs are going to work together. Is there going to be a competition for resources here? Are you going to have the leeway to run a fully operational system given that INAC wasn’t able to do it when it was one big well-funded department. Can it do it better as two?

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JP: Well this is a transformative structural change of machinery of government for lack of a less bureaucratic term. So this is basically acting as you know on a recommendation that was made two decades ago based on some impressive consultation and study who said the structure that we have had in place, what was the Indian and Northern Affairs department, was a faulty structure, it was a colonial structure that was designed to implement the Indian Act, which we know is a piece of our legislation that is discriminatory and the department needs to be dismantled and the law needs to eventually be repealed. So we’re starting to act on those recommendations that were made 20 years ago, and there will be work to be done to ensure we communicate well the differences between the two departments.

VICE News Canada is spending this week focusing on the Indigenous water crisis. Read more here.

VN: Your government committed to solving all the water advisories on First Nations within five years but there hasn’t been much progress on that so far. How do you respond to that, and does your strategy need to change?

JP: So you’re absolutely right, the Prime Minister made a very clear commitment with budget 2016 that our goal is to make sure that we eliminate long term drinking water advisories on reserves over a five year period of time. I think there has been significant progress, not necessarily in terms of the numbers — yet — but there’s been progress on things like the fact that first of all we actually have a better idea of how bad the situation is by tracking, — and I think there’s more work to be done on tracking — but I think there’s been significant progress made in that area.

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“I think there has been significant progress, not necessarily in terms of the numbers — yet.”

Probably one of the biggest things I think that has happened in the last couple of years is getting access to longer term funding. Now that there’s long term funding, five years of funding, guaranteed, written into the system, one can actually get the work done to develop the proposal, hire the people, train the people, build the system, make sure the people know how to operate and maintain them over the long haul, so we stop this terrible cycle of lifting a drinking water advisory and then a few months later it has to restart again.

VN: So when are we going to start seeing results?

JP: Well I believe that there are results already, and I can get into the numbers and details of the communities and which ones specifically have had their long term drinking water advisories in place. So the numbers have been reduced since we started this initiative, but at the same time, you’re probably well aware that as some communities have had their drinking water advisories lifted, others have had them added. So that can be very discouraging, and it speaks to as I said earlier the challenge of keeping an eye on high risk systems.

VN: Can you elaborate on the long-term funding a little bit? To do that would be to turn what INAC does all the way around. Have those changes really come into effect yet, or is that something that’s going to be more long term?

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JP: Well I think there’s short, medium, and long term, because as I’ve said in the past, much of this was done on short term project funding. And this was not just on drinking water, this was on a whole range of other issues where communities really struggle because the funding arrangements are not designed in a way that allows building sustainable solutions, so as it relates to the drinking water advisories, announcing five years of funding, $733 million already released for 348 projects, it allows people to know that they can get work done.

VN: Your government has said you would eventually want to devolve the responsibilities for services to First Nations. How would that work for water and wastewater infrastructure?

JP: Well, as in all of these things, this is a conversation that has to take place with communities, and one ought not generalize as to the wishes and desires of any particular community. There are a number of First Nations communities across the country that do have self-governing agreements on a broad range of areas, and some have chosen specific areas — education, for example, to develop an agreement to take over governance and control management and planning etc.

“They have solutions.”

So this is an area that has not been discussed as much when it comes to infrastructure but it’s a conversation that I think we need to have with communities who are in the best positions. They have solutions, and have a desire to have control over their own lives, as all people do. I think ultimately that’s where these cycles of paternalistic approaches to solving community problems are not helpful in the long run and that’s part of the whole plan we have in our renewed relationship with First Nations and other Indigenous people.

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VN: Obviously there’s legislation that’s been in place a few years now that governs access to clean drinking water on First Nations but it hasn’t had the regulations behind it to really put it into force. I know consultations are going on right now, but can you give me any sort of update about what we can expect in terms of actual legally-enforceable requirements for clean drinking water on First Nations?

JP: So I think that;’s a fantastic question and it’s remarkable, again, not the only issue on which there is legislation in place that not adequate regulatory work has been done to put legislation into effect. The specifics in this case I have not yet had a chance to dig into, but very often those regulatory changes are absolutely critical to make sure that laws don’t just sit on the books but that they actually get the work done that they’re intended to do, so if I may get back to you on what that’s going to look like, I will be very happy to do so, but unfortunately I’m not in a position to get into the specifics of the regulatory work that needs to be done, but I acknowledge that it’s very important.

VN: There’s been criticism over the government not funding equally First Nations health care. Will you put pressure on the government to solve that gap?

JP: You know what, there are incredibly disturbing gaps in terms of health outcomes that not only First Nations but Inuit and Métis have experienced. There are a whole variety of reasons for them including access to basic things like clean drinking water and good, healthy food, so we are doing a full on review of the laws and policies of this country and programs and operating practices in this country that have led to these severe gaps in terms of health outcomes, and yes that means better access to health care but it means also addressing all of these things that contribute to people being healthy, it’s not just about health care delivery, although that’s absolutely essential, but it’s access to clean drinking water, it’s living in a decent house and being able to have a good education and get a good job.

VN: We’ve spoken to a lot of especially young First Nations water operators, a lot of them are working in these plants. We’ve also spoken to just a lot of First Nations teenagers, people in their 20s, who have never had clean water from a tap at home. What would you say to them?

JP: I would say to them: I want to hear their ideas, and I want them to dream and imagine what the future should look like for themselves and for their communities. And I hope they are thinking about how they will be part of the solution for their communities.