One year after the election that swept Justin Trudeau to power, the new Liberal government has failed to make a dent in the prime minister's promise to end boil water advisories on First Nation reserves across the country within five years.
In July 2015, there were a total of 133 drinking water advisories on 93 reserves. As of the end of August this year, the situation was largely unchanged, with 132 advisories on 89 reserves.
The agency responsible for the issue, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, claims progress has been made, and provided VICE News with a list of 15 water advisories on 11 reserves it says have been resolved since the Liberals took power.
Of the 11 reserves on the agency's list, six are still considered by Health Canada to have undrinkable water. Of the eight reserves who responded to request for comment, four said the water remains undrinkable.
When VICE News asked why there was a discrepancy, Indigenous Affairs blamed Health Canada's website for not being up to date, and said it is working to solve new, short-term water issues on some of the 11 reserves. It declined to make Carolyn Bennett, the minister responsible, available after repeated requests for an interview.The agency said the improvements it did achieve were mostly due to new or upgraded water systems it funded.
But the fact that the needle has barely moved on the list underscores the staggering problem confronting both the government and reserves. Just because one boil water advisory has been resolved doesn't mean the water is clean across an entire reserve—often reserves are battling multiple advisories, which can cover just a single building or an entire community. These water advisories blink on and off, often for years, ultimately eroding trust in the safety of water coming out of the taps. There is also confusion over which advisories are active, thanks to competing lists from Health Canada and Indigenous Affairs.
These difficulties cast doubt on the prime minister's ability to deliver on his promise, to which he has dedicated big dollars. In March, the Liberals announced $1.8-billion over five years for water infrastructure on reserves, and another $141.7-million to monitor the quality of water. Of that, $618-million is earmarked to flow in the first two years. Earlier this month, the Liberals spent $4 million of that budget to expand a successful water treatment plant training program to 14 reserves. The Liberal budget for First Nations water, however, falls short of the $5-billion over 10 years a government report in 2011 suggested would be required to end the water access crisis for good.
"If I made promises it's because I intend to keep them," Trudeau told Sarain Carson-Fox, host of the new VICELAND show RISE earlier this year, while visiting Shoal Lake 40, an isolated reserve that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border and has been on a boil water advisory for twenty years.
Potlotek, a small First Nation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, made headlines across Canada last month after residents reported filthy black water flowing from its taps. But Indigenous Affairs included the First Nation on its list of success stories—claiming it ended a long-term water advisory there in May, only to recommend a new one in September.
Band manager Lindsay Marshall said the band had advised its members not to drink the water.
"They haven't solved anything yet," he said. "My chief came in this morning and he said that his water, when he turned it on, was black."
Indigenous Affairs claims that elevated levels of iron and manganese resulted in the September advisory, but said "there are no identified health impacts associated with the presence of those two minerals in the [Potlotek] drinking water." Health Canada has said the water on the reserve is "esthetically unsuitable" for drinking, but wouldn't cause any harm if consumed. The government did not immediately provide specifics on what the "elevated" levels of iron and manganese were.
According to Health Canada, manganese, which is dark in colour, has long been regarded as "one of the least toxic elements." More recently, though, it has been discovered to be harmful, but its toxic effects have been documented more frequently as a result of chronic inhalation, not in drinking water, Health Canada says. Together, iron and manganese can cause dark, discoloured water.Potlotek has a water treatment plant, but they don't use the water from it, Marshall said. "It's only good for firefighting and toilets. Dogs won't even drink it."
Indigenous Affairs said design work on a new water treatment plant that can filter out the iron and manganese is starting "as quickly as possible."
But according to Marshall, the new plant will be next to the old one, and will draw water from the same lake. No one trusts the water from that lake, he added, because the reserve's sewage lagoon sits only 55 feet away, and spills over into the lake during storms.
Marshall said the band is drilling wells to find a new source of water, and Indigenous Affairs is providing bottled water as an interim solution.
It's a similar story on a small reserve on the other side of the country.
Indigenous Affairs claims a 16-year boil water advisory in Nazko, a reserve in northern British Columbia, came to an end on November 20, 2015.
Lena Hjorth tests the reserve's water and rebuffs the government's claim that it's safe.
"I don't trust it either myself," she said. "I don't drink it. Because there's still arsenic in there."
She said the filter at their treatment plant, which was built a few years ago, stopped working about a month ago. The band ordered a new filter, but it hasn't arrived yet.
"We went through years of manganese and arsenic," added band member Terrence Paul. "We've gone through some very terrible water, and could literally see the darkness in it, debris floating around in it, bugs. So people are still trying to get back into utilizing the water.
"It's going to take a while to build that trust back up again," he said, adding that the government is providing bottled water to the reserve.
Indigenous Affairs also says it has solved water advisories on four reserves in Ontario, such as one in place on Constance Lake First Nation since April 2014. But when pressed for details, Indigenous Affairs admitted the water advisory has flickered on and off over the last year. After lifting one advisory on August 1, the agency says another advisory was ordered and then lifted on September 16. Health Canada still lists the advisory because its list is not up to date.
It's a similar story with another reserve, Pikangikum. Indigenous Affairs said it revoked an advisory in February that was first set in January 2006. However, another boil water advisory on the reserve also set in 2006 is still in place.
Pic Mobert, another Ontario reserve, is also still on Health Canada's list of boil water advisories, though Indigenous Affairs said it has revoked an advisory there. That's because a new water treatment plant is only hooked up to one side of the reserve so far, explained Orville Ncwatch, the reserve's water operator. The new $12 million plant is "state of the art," he said, and has been under construction for a year and a half. He wasn't sure whether the Liberals contributed funding to it.
Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek, also known as Rocky Bay First Nation, is also listed as still having a water advisory in place as of August 31, but Indigenous Affairs said it was resolved. Harley Hardey, the water treatment plant operator for the reserve, said their boil water advisory has indeed ended after one year, and that it was just a matter of replacing broken equipment.
Cumberland House, a Saskatchewan First Nation, still has four water advisories listed as of August 31, although Indigenous Affairs said it ended two water advisories there. Indigenous Affairs said it is working to address the ongoing water issues.
Indigenous Affairs included Nekaneet, another Saskatchewan reserve, on its list of successes, saying it ended one long-term advisory there. But when pressed to explain why Nekaneet still appeared on Health Canada's list of boil water advisories, the department admitted it was funding a new system for the reserve to resolve another advisory that is still in effect.
A woman at that First Nation who answered the phone but didn't give her name said the water on Nekaneet has "always been drinkable" but that it was a "paperwork issue" that has now been solved. When VICE News asked additional questions, she said the Nation had no comment and hung up.
Other than Potlotek, Indigenous Affairs said it has fixed the water on two other reserves in Atlantic Canada: Abegweit and Pabineau no longer appear on Health Canada's list.
Band councillor Terry Richardson said the advisory on the New Brunswick reserve of Pabineau is still in place, but is expected to end soon.
Abegweit Chief Brian Francis happily confirmed that the water on his Prince Edward Island reserve is now clean and drinkable after upgrades to their system that began under the Conservatives.
In BC, Indigenous Affairs ended one other water advisory on the reserve of Esk'etemc. Deidri Jack in the reserve's operations and maintenance office confirmed the water there is now drinkable after a "very lovely" water treatment plant was completed this year, and people are happy.
Construction on the plant began before the Liberals were elected, she said.
"We're still going to continue to monitor to ensure the safety of the community, but it's just been absolutely awesome that we've been able to completely remove the boil water advisory," she said.
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