Jane Philpott, Minister for Indigenous Services, has a lot on her plate.
She is the person tasked with ending long term water advisories on public systems in First Nation communities by March 2021. And during next year’s election, the public will decide whether she and the Trudeau government have pushed the issue forward enough to be re-elected.
Her department is using a new system to closely track water advisories and the needs of each community, and claims to have ended 70 water advisories in 50 communities since the Liberal government took power in November 2015.
If you look only at the government’s numbers, they show progress. There were 105 long term water advisories on public systems on reserve when the government was sworn in. Now, that number is 69.
But those numbers don’t give a true sense of scale. There are also short term water advisories and private wells that are not included in the commitment. That means even if Philpott fulfills the commitment, there will still be people on reserve who can’t drink water from the tap.
“I’m determined not to fail.”
It’s also important to note that the commitment has changed from what Trudeau promised ahead of the 2015 election. He said his government would solve all water advisories in First Nations in Canada. That is no longer the government’s goal.
We asked the minister about her progress on the file, and what it will take to get clean tap water to everyone in Canada.
“I’m determined not to fail,” she told us. “And if I get a chance to keep doing this it will be my privilege to push it along.”
The interview has been edited for length.
VICE News: I asked the department for an up-to-date list of water advisories that your government had solved since taking power in November 2015. Six of the communities on that list, with 18 advisories between them, told me they don’t have clean water on the systems that ISC said had clean water. Why is there a discrepancy between what the government said and what these communities are saying? (Update: After this interview, we went back to those communities to double check, and the number is now five communities with 17 advisories between them.)
Minister Jane Philpott: Thank you for your question and for your interest in the topic. I would be very happy to get you the specific details on any of those particular communities. It’s hard to speak in generalities, I’m not sure who you spoke to there, or the familiarity with the water systems.
VN: I can tell you that I spoke to water experts in every single community, so it was either the water operators, a band manager, the chief, or a councillor in charge of water.
JP: It would be very helpful to get that list and we can look up the details of each of them and make sure there’s a clear understanding. Sometimes there is confusion over the fact that you can have a community that does not have a long term drinking water advisory that can have a brand new, totally functioning system, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that every single person in that community has in their home access to the same water system that has the clean water. Just like in municipalities that have standardized systems for water that is distributed to those communities, there may be people in more remote parts of the community that will use a well system, for example. That’s one hypothesis as to where there might have been some confusion but I’d be very happy to have our department dig into the details on those six communities that you’re referring to.
VN: Just to be clear, when I asked them whether they had clean drinking water, I was asking them about the specific systems that ISC said had clean water and had water advisories lifted, and then those water experts were saying no, on those systems there is not currently clean drinking water.
JP: OK, well let’s check into that. That obviously is an important flag and I’d be very happy to get the details.
VN: This is also the third year in a row that I’ve found a discrepancy of some sort between the government numbers and what the communities themselves are saying. I remember that last year you said your department had a new tracking system. Is the tracking system working properly?
“I don’t think the commitments have shifted at all, they have been clarified.”
JP: I can tell you there’s a tremendous amount of work in making sure that that tracking system is followed very closely, that our department is in regular communication with communities to address any concerns about drinking water advisories. We make sure in particular that those communities that are at risk of developing a drinking water advisory, those that are working on developing those new systems, are well supported and the tracking system is kept in meticulous detail. Communities of course will ultimately have to make the final decision as to when they will either add an advisory or take off an advisory if they have concern on the basis of testing reports that come back. But those community-based decisions feed into our system and it’s updated accordingly.
VN: The most surprising thing that I heard this year when I was calling these communities was that there’s this huge issue with water operators quitting. Chiefs and water operators had said operators are paid very low wages. One water operator in Saskatchewan said he was paid $12 an hour, and another in Ontario said $15 an hour. I realize these are tax free. They said, though, that the wages are not competitive with municipalities. And another community said they had cut the number of operators from two down to one because they weren’t getting enough money from ISC. Are you aware of this issue?
JP: I am absolutely aware of this issue. It’s something that I discuss with chiefs on a regular basis and we are working with them on addressing this issue. It’s actually different in different parts of the country, the differential between average rates for water operators on reserve versus in municipalities. I’ll note that there are some provinces where the differential is not as great, but it is something we’re definitely working with communities on and finding ways that we can be able to support with resources for water operators’ salaries. It’s ultimately up to the communities what they pay their water operators. And they certainly are aware of the need to address retention issues and we’re looking at how we can find ways to support them in that.
VN: I understand that, but some chiefs were saying that they had asked ISC for additional funds so they could increase wages. Will you commit to increasing that amount of money so that water operators can be paid competitive with municipalities?
“Will we see a day when every single home is connected to a municipal or publicly governed water system? I’m not sure that that’s necessarily realistic.”
JP: There’s no reason now why a community couldn’t pay competitively, and in fact many of them do successfully, which is great. There are broad issues in terms of our fiscal relationships with those communities. We are looking at making sure that that fiscal relationship is respectful and sufficient, and we are very actively having conversations with communities about this particular issue.
VN: But these communities are saying that if ISC gave them more, they would directly increase operator wages, and some of these operators have told me that they’re threatening to quit, and other people have quit before them. So I’m just wondering, will you increase the amount of money that goes specifically to those communities that need to increase water operator pay?
JP: We have already increased our funding to communities. There are a number of mechanisms with which we support communities for funding for some of their public service jobs. There’s a pool of funding called band support funding which has been increased in the last couple of years, and I can get you details on other types of funding that goes to communities. It is not up to us to decide how much a community pays their water operator.
VN: I also wanted to ask you about the different commitments that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the current government have made over time. Since 2015, both Trudeau as a candidate and the Liberal government have made a number of different shifting commitments on First Nations water. Can you please explain why those commitments have shifted?
JP: I don’t think the commitments have shifted at all, they have been clarified and they have been repeated and we are going forward to follow through on the prime minister’s commitment.
VN: Well they’ve definitely shifted. The original set of numbers that Trudeau gave ahead of the 2015 election is different than the number that is now the commitment.
JP: The commitment was, in terms of lifting drinking water advisories on reserve, we have clarified the details of what that means. You know I think, because you’re an expert on this area, that drinking water advisories can be in place for varying lengths of time. Again, people are often familiar with more municipal systems. I had in my house a few weeks ago a notice saying they were doing road work on the road and that we should not drink the water for 24 hours, that’s in a city in the greater Toronto area. So there are drinking water advisories that happen all the time in municipalities, on reserve, etc. That’s not what the prime minister was referring to. The prime minister was referring to the very serious problem of long term drinking water advisories that existed, as he made a promise during the campaign to address these long term advisories, he specified that, then we made a commitment at the time of our budget in March of 2016 that we would make sure that all long term drinking water advisories on reserve would be lifted within five years. So the only changes that were made were that we actually made our work harder last year because we did some further analysis by recognizing that, while we have never as a federal government had an obligation to address private systems, for example there may be water systems that may be associated with a convenience store or a gas station, those are obviously the responsibility of the private owner to take care of, we went through all of the 1,500 some systems that existed on reserve to make sure that we knew which ones were public and which ones were private. There were a few that had previously not been identified as a public federal responsibility that we on further review realized should be part of our commitment so we actually added to the number of systems that we believed should be part of the federal obligation. But our commitment has not changed and we will follow through on the prime minister’s promise.
“This issue requires a significant amount of political will, a huge increase in resources, a commitment to long term resources and not just periodic short-term funding.”
VN: That is what I meant when I said shifting.
JP: There is a difference between shifting and clarifying.
VN: Which commitment do you expect the public to hold you to during next year’s election?
JP: I expect them to hold us to the very clear commitment that we have made to make sure that all long term drinking water advisories for public systems on reserve will be lifted by March 2021.
VN: If you meet that commitment by March 2021, will there still be First Nations people on reserve who do not have clean drinking water from their taps?
JP: Yes, because not every person who lives on reserve has got access to a public water system. It’s the same as every other community across the country. There are people who are not attached to a publicly administered water system, who have a private well or some other mechanism by which they access water. But what our commitment is is to address the issue of these public water systems. There is much more work that we’re doing as well in terms of expanding the reach of these water systems, so we can send you the details of an announcement I made at Six Nations a number of months ago, where they didn’ t have a long term drinking water advisory, but we made an investment, a multi-million dollar investment to make sure that the water system that they had extended out to more homes.
VN: I don’t want to paint this as a simple problem at all, because you and I both know it’s extremely complex, and I know your government is doing a lot of work toward remedying the problem. So I’m wondering, stepping back and looking at this issue as a whole, how do we actually get to the point of having safe tap water for everyone in this country?
JP: I think that’s a good question. We live in a vast country where people often live in very remote settings, literally across the country. Will we see a day when every single home is connected to a municipal or publicly governed water system? I’m not sure that that’s necessarily realistic, but as I said, there are other ways to address those remoteness issues. We are working right now with First Nations on looking at, for example, the Safe Drinking Water Act, which they have asked us to do some work on, and would like to address the concerns that First Nations have raised over that. Mechanisms like that will allow First Nations to address drinking water standards and looking at issues like regulations that could be in place around how wells are installed, how they are maintained, how they are regularly tested. These are some of the challenges that a country of our size faces. What is different now under our government is that First Nations communities have a partner in the federal government who is heavily, respectfully engaged with them in addressing the challenges that are being faced.
VN: Why is this issue so hard to fix?
JP: This issue requires a significant amount of political will, a huge increase in resources, a commitment to long term resources and not just periodic short-term funding. And it requires meticulous organization. We have all those ingredients together now, we have the absolute determination of First Nations communities as well as the federal government to address this issue. And we have every intention of being successful, but it is not something that can be done overnight, as I said these are often remote communities, they each have unique geographic and environmental issues to deal with, in some cases environmental contamination that is a factor, or other issues that need to be addressed. There are challenges in making sure that a unique design that meets the needs of the community is developed, that construction materials and equipment are delivered; sometimes there’s only a short window of time each year when there may be a barge to be delivered or an ice road that is necessary to get heavy equipment to the communities, and there’s time and energy that goes into training of water operators.
VN: I want to let you have the space to highlight any achievements that you think your government has done. Are there any success stories you wanted to mention?
JP: There are many, many success stories. It’s one of the great joys of my work that I get to go to communities and see the work that’s being done. I think the visit that probably stands out in my mind most immediately when you ask me that is the visit to Slate Falls that I made earlier this year. This is a community that has had drinking water advisories in place. They had 11 separate systems, they all had drinking water advisories for 14 years, I believe was the length of time. They were able to replace those dysfunctional systems with one brand new system that was able to reach out to all of the same facilities and homes that had previously been getting access from the dysfunctional water system. It was an absolutely beautiful facility. I met one of the young men, who was a local young man, who had been trained as a water operator. He was as proud as possibly could be, which was delightful to see, and he was really committed to staying in his community and serving them. I met young kids in the school where we had a lunch. The school was served by the water system, which was great. The kids had never ever been able to turn on the tap in their school before and drink the water, but as of when we were there, they could turn on the tap and know that there was clean drinking water coming out of the taps in their school. And to see how that was really going to change the community was delightful.
VN: I called Slate Falls and I spoke to a band councillor who said that they are having ongoing deficiencies from the contractor there, and that there are “concerns that still need to be met.” And he said “every time the power goes out, the numbers go coo-coo and we end up putting out a boil water advisory.”
JP: There may be some short term advisories and we can, again, look into the details, and these communities know that they have direct access to our officials to support them in their work. Your comment points to the fact that these are systems that are dependent upon other parts of the infrastructure in the communities, and we are certainly committed to making sure that we deal with all of the other pieces and support communities in the needs that they have.
VN: I think that’s all I needed to ask you. Thank you again, Jane, I appreciate you making time. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
JP: No, just to say thank you for your attention to a really important issue.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott listens to a questions during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday January 23, 2018. Photo by Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press