Editor’s Note: Story has been updated with Liberal statement sent to APTN late Tuesday.
APTN National News
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau excluded British Columbia First Nations when he announced Monday evening that his government would fix the water woes afflicting 93 First Nations on Health Canada’s drinking water advisory list.
Trudeau made the announcement during a town hall hosted by Vice News Canada.
During the town hall, Trudeau said he agreed with Isadore Day, the Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, who called for the next government to commit to ensuring no First Nation community remains under a drinking water advisory within five years.
“We agree with that,” said Trudeau.
When a Vice journalist pressed Trudeau on whether he was saying no First Nations would be under drinking water advisories within five years, he qualified his statement. Trudeau said it only applied to the 93 First Nations which are currently on Health Canada’s drinking water advisory list.
“In all those 93 communities, yes,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau excluded, in one fell swoop, the 25 First Nations in B.C. that are currently under drinking water advisories.
Health Canada stopped reporting water advisories for First Nations in B.C. back in 2013. Those numbers are now reported by the First Nations Health Authority in the province.
Russell Diabo, a policy analyst who helped developed the Liberal party’s election platform in the early 1990s, said it’s surprising Trudeau would exclude First Nations in B.C. in this announcement. One-third of all First Nation communities are in B.C.
“You would think his advisers would give him better advice,” said Diabo, who helped craft the Liberal party’s Aboriginal affairs platform for the 1993 federal election. “He probably isn’t fully briefed on the complexity of all these issues.”
The NDP has not released their Indigenous issues platform, but it’s doubtful the party will unveil any ground-breaking funding promises on First Nation infrastructure because leader Thomas Muclair has committed the party to balanced budgets, said Diabo.
“They will be hamstrung in terms of what they are going to spend,” he said.
That platform will be released Wednesday.
The Conservatives have not made any new or major commitments to First Nations.
The Harper government says it has invested about $3 billion in water and waste water infrastructure between 2006 and 2014. The federal 2014 budget also committed $323.4 million over two years to improving water and wastewater systems on reserves.
The Liberal party issued a response late Tuesday evening on the apparent exclusion of B.C. First Nations from Trudeau’s promise.
“The use of that particular stat was meant to highlight the scope of the problem. Rest assured, our commitment is to all First Nations communities across Canada struggling with issues surrounding clean drinking water,” said the statement.
The party is also vague on how it would pay to fix the water issues facing the 93 communities listed by Health Canada.
In Ontario, for example, some First Nations have been under advisories since the Liberals were in power.
The Neskantaga First Nation has been under a drinking water advisory since 1995 while Deer Lake First Nation and Eabametoong First Nation have been under an advisory since 2001.
In Quebec, Kitigan Zibi has been under an advisory since 1999.
The majority of the communities currently on the Health Canada list were added under the Harper government.
In this year alone, 12 First Nation communities from Ontario were added to the list.
The Liberals have not earmarked any specific funds to deal with First Nation water woes in their platform costing document.
The Liberal party sent APTN a statement saying some of the money in the party’s $20 billion green infrastructure fund would be used for First Nation water issues. The same fund, which is to be spread over 10 years, has been identified by the party for a number of other promised priorities.
The Liberal party statement also said a Trudeau government would reengage with First Nations on the $5 billion Kelowna Accord struck by the Paul Martin Liberals in the dying days of that minority government.
The 2005 Kelowna Accord took 18 months to negotiate and it was struck with all Indigenous groups, including First Nation, Metis, Inuit and off-reserve First Nations people. The $5 billion was to be spread out over 10 years.
A Kelowna-level funding promise would fix First Nation water and wastewater infrastructure problems only if every single dollar was used on that specific issue.
According a 2011 study commissioned by the federal Aboriginal Affairs department, it would cost about $4.7 billion over 10 years to get First Nation water and wastewater infrastructure up to the department’s own standards. The report said First Nation communities needed an immediate $1.2 billion to deal with high-risk systems.
Aboriginal Affairs said in a response to the report that it planned to invest in 25 per cent of systems the study identified as high risk by 2015-2016.
Water is only a portion of the staggering infrastructure deficit faced by First Nations.
According to a 2012 study sponsored by Aboriginal Affairs, First Nation communities across the country need about $5.2 billion in capital investments to improve on-reserve housing.
The study concluded that over the 2007-2031 timeframe, Ottawa needed to invest about $21.3 billion (in 2009 dollars) for First Nation housing.
None of the three main federal parties are promising anywhere close to these funding levels.