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Inside Ottawa’s failure to fix the First Nations drinking water crisis

Financial analysis shows Ottawa has been woefully underfunding many First Nations water projects.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

Bringing clean drinking water to First Nations across Canada isn’t rocket science. More often than not, it simply requires commitment: Not just in cash, but in resources to help communities manage the facilities.

A VICE News analysis of government disclosure documents illustrates exactly how a lack of funding has kept First Nations on a list of reserves where the water is not safe to drink.

The infrastructure reports show that, between the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 fiscal years, just 25 percent of identified water infrastructures costs on First Nations were funded by the federal government, then under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.


A leaked briefing note from 2016 reveals that, even as water infrastructure fails, government can be slow to act.

Two civil servants — one current, one former — from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) confirmed the funding issues, and spoke candidly about the department’s infrastructure strategy for First Nations, especially when it comes comes to drinking water, and described a flawed and broken process.

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

“The huge issue no one talks about at a technical level is how poorly run the department is and the enormous impact that has on First Nations,” says one current civil servant who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record.

“There are absolutely good people working for INAC but it is a total disaster at the management and executive levels. Plus the department has no idea how to work in a respectful, cooperative partnership with Indigenous communities.”

Veldon Coburn, who worked for more than three years in the department’s community infrastructure branch under the previous Conservative government, describes a department with scant resources trying to run programs while still trying to “keep the lights on.” It was a system where, as government cut-backs dug into operational budgets, staff had their salaries paid by money earmarked for infrastructure projects.


“We were directed to address INAC regional officials ’empires’ before First Nations’ needs.”

Coburn says that without using infrastructure money to cover staffing and operational costs “it meant its regional office and regional staff … couldn’t be covered.” That staffing could be anywhere from two to five full-time employees.

Coburn also describes a system where cash was “sprinkled” over a wide area, providing some funding for many projects — but failing to fully fund many of them.

“One of the things that really bothered me — really bothered me — was what I called the ‘fairy dust sprinkling,’” Coburn told VICE News. He says the department would “divvy up” funding across a swath of First Nations every year. “And those initial allocations would go to the regions for [water/wastewater] infrastructure projects, each at various stages, from feasibility study to construction that is underway.”

Coburn, who worked at the department until 2014 (the current Liberal government was elected in 2015) says this sort of sprinkling was not serving any broader goal — at least, not the one they were tasked with addressing.

“Even if one region needed funding more than another, we were directed to address INAC regional officials ’empires’ before First Nations’ needs,” he says. “Thus, projects would be unnecessarily drawn-out over several years, instead of getting urgent projects done right away.”

One current water operator told VICE News that First Nations often get stuck with low-cost contractors who cut corners on construction and are loathe to come back afterwards.


Generally speaking, even if Indigenous and Northern Affairs provides funding for water infrastructure, it is often left to the First Nation to build it, bring it online, and keep it running.

“Just cover them up and pray no one notices.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a specific commitment to bring infrastructure to those communities who need it the most — vowing to end boil water advisories by 2021 — and his government has moved to try and provide more long-term funding for First Nations.

There is, however, little indication that the wholesale changes have yet to occur at the departmental level: Yet.

The current Indigenous and Northern Affairs bureaucrat described projects where water filtration plants were simply mis-installed, but where the department was quick to wash their hands of the issue.

“We never admit those things, just cover them up and pray no one notices. If the department finds errors that impact a First Nation, the approach is to not correct or mention it unless the First Nation notices,” they told VICE News.

David Craig, a water operator in Pic Mobert First Nation, and who has worked as a water operator in Northern Ontario First Nations for the past two decades, echoed the frustration.

“Once these facilities are built on First Nations, more emphasis should be on keeping them running, because they have a tendency to neglect them afterwards,” Craig told VICE News. “You have to jump through all the hoops to get the funding, and a lot of these places fall into disrepair after.”


A leaked draft version of a briefing note regarding issues at the Mushuau Innu First Nation in Labrador, dated September 29, 2016, provides some insight into how issues can be identified, but not fixed. In the community, the civil servant told VICE News, a salt water intrusion detector was incorrectly installed on one of the water filtration systems.

“An assessment of the water facility indicates a lack of necessary maintenance to maintain and operate the system in a safe and reliable manner,” the briefing note reads. “The operators are not certified or trained for the system. Some elements of the water system have never been completed.

“There is a potential for future failures which represents a serious health and safety concern.”

The briefing note adds that similar issues apply to the wastewater system.

According to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs website, the government is funding a rehabilitation project for the Mushuau Innu water treatment plant, although it’s unclear for how much.

The current bureaucrat says many of these issues stem from a desperate lack of planning and forethought from the department.

First Nations — many of which are remote, with small populations and disconnected from other nearby governments or communities — rarely have the capacity to put shovels in the ground as soon as the money arrives.

“When a First Nation does get funding it’s not like they all have a public works department that can roll out a major project,” they say. Add in the fact that construction, especially in northern Canada, cannot be done year-round, funding delays from the federal government further frustrate getting these projects off the ground.


The Yunesit’In Government needed $1.5 million to upgrade a sewage lagoon. In the 2016 fiscal year, they received just $7,600.

Annual infrastructure reports prepared by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada illustrate the extent of the problem.

Those reports show that, over two fiscal years — from 2013 to 2015, prior to Trudeau’s election — the federal government funded just over one-quarter of the total costs associated with ongoing water and wastewater infrastructure projects for all First Nations communities under federal authority across Canada.

Of the nearly $650 million in costs identified by the federal government that would be needed to fund water filtration systems, water delivery trucks, piping, repairs to water systems, and other critical water and wastewater infrastructure, the federal government funded less than $175 million over that two-year period.

For those communities currently on boil water advisories, the number is even lower.

While the government identified $114 million in costs identified for water projects for those communities who are, as of July 31 of this year, on boil water advisories, it provided just $24 million in funding. That’s just 21 percent.

The Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, for example, has been on boil water advisory for the past three years. The community, a 350 kilometre drive northwest of Saskatoon on the Alberta border, needed just shy of $3 million to upgrade its water treatment plant. The 2015 report indicates that just $45,000 was provided by the federal government.


In British Columbia, the Yunesit’In Government needed $1.5 million to upgrade a sewage lagoon. In the 2016 fiscal year, they received just $7,600.

In some cases, the total amount of the funding is merely being parcelled out over several years. But in many cases, the funding appears to be on a year-to-year basis.

The data, posted to a government website, provides scant detail about the exact nature of the funding commitments and what, precisely, was funded and what was not. The government stopped providing more detailed reports on water infrastructure — which broke down the investments, provided descriptions of the work, and analyzed the risks to water quality in those nations — in 2013.

VICE News requested the most up-to-date infrastructure report, but requests from Indigenous and Northern Affairs went unanswered. An interview request to Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett were denied.

Unlike other federal infrastructure programs, these commitments are rarely multi-year funding arrangements. Often, First Nations will be given funding to go towards a specific project. If they do not use it all, it will be returned to the federal coffers.

To that end, newly-appointed Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott wants to make changes. She will head up a new department, split from Indigenous and Northern Affairs, aimed at bringing direct services to First Nations communities.


“The ones with the biggest challenges usually are in precarious financial situations where the financings are one or two years at a time.”

“You’ll appreciate the fact that these systems, depending on the size and geography of the community, can require more than two years’ work, and therefore more than two years’ funding,” Philpott told VICE News.

“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.”

Some projects bear hallmarks of improvement. Neskantaga First Nation, the northern Ontario community that has experienced Canada’s longest boil-water advisory, should see its $9-million water filtration plant online by 2018, thanks to funding from the Trudeau government.

The current Indigenous and Northern Affairs employee does note the “aspirational” nature of Philpott’s plan, but says there are still issues.

“Longer-term funding is only available to the highest functioning, most successful First Nations,” they told VICE News.

They underlined the circular nature of the problem: Those communities with the highest capacity to execute the projects are the most likely to win the funding. Those with structural funding, staffing, and infrastructure issues — communities that may also be struggling with the ongoing suicide or opioid crises — are less likely to be entrusted with long-term funding.


“The ones with the biggest challenges usually are in precarious financial situations where the financings are one or two years at a time.”

Mushuau Innu First Nation is a prime example. In the leaked briefing note, the government notes that the community was at risk at defaulting on its debt, and that Indigenous and Northern Affairs was in the midst of auditing their financials.

“[Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] will work with Mamu to determine program expectations associated with [operations & management] funding,” it reads. It adds that, due to the community’s poor state of infrastructure, “Mamu may be in default of their funding arrangement.”

An internal report from the department reads that, should a First Nation default, the minister has the power to impose a management plan on the community, or impose co-management or third-party management on the reserve.

It’s not just the duration of the funding that’s hobbling the government’s effort.

Main estimates for the current fiscal year, published by the federal government, reports that Indigenous and Northern Affairs is set to increase infrastructure spending by more than $1 billion this year alone — more than an 80 percent increase, with more to come in future years.

At the same time, a departmental report for this year predicts that staffing will not grow at nearly the same rate.

According to departmental planning documents, under the previous government staffing levels at the department were cut from 4,500 full-time (or full-time-equivalent) staff in 2015 to just 3,800. Under the new government, that level has returned to 4,600, but is expected to drop back down to just over 4,000.

With files from Hilary Beaumont