Canada Blows Deadline to Provide Clean Water, Offers Website Instead

Indigenous communities still under boil water advisories won’t get clean drinking water this month as the government promised. Instead, they will get a letter promising to meet that goal soon, and a website tracking progress.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during his daily news conference outside his residence in Ottawa, on May 19, 2020. (Photo by Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

(CN) — As part of its efforts toward “reconciliation” with First Nations, the Canadian government has long heralded the significance of March 2021 as the month when it would deliver clean water infrastructure to all First Nations reserves. On Wednesday, it revised that promise.

North Caribou First Nation in present day Ontario, Canada, is one of 38 First Nations communities the Canadian government says is still without a reliable supply of clean drinking water. The 800-member community has been on boil water notices off and on for decades. Yet Canada just added North Caribou to its official tally of First Nations reserves still in need of clean water on March 3.

Carlena Petawanick, 25, is a youth advocate for North Caribou. She says she can’t remember a time when a lack of clean water wasn’t an issue. And it’s gotten worse as the community has grown.

“It’s always a problem here,” Petawanick said over the phone. “The bigger our reserve gets, the more our water plant can barely hold. It’s been going on for years on and off since I was a baby.”

Head Councilmember Ernest Quequish said North Caribou is waiting to hear an update on the government’s review of the water feasibility plan they submitted. In the meantime, the government has provided some emergency funding for a limited supply of bottled water. That mostly goes to babies and elders. For everyone else, it’s back to hauling water by the bucketful from the local lake — a chore Quequish is familiar with.

“When I was a boy, that was my job for my family of six,” Quequish said. “Every day we had to go chop a hole in the ice and haul the water in using pails. We did that during our lunch breaks and after school, everyday regardless of the weather. According to the medical people, that’s what we used to get sick from. Bacteria in the water.”

Regardless of the bacteria present in the 1970s, local water quality has degraded since then, Petawanick said. She said some North Caribou kids have skin conditions from bathing in untreated water.

“There’s float planes, there’s oil and there’s bacteria,” Petawanick said. “The water is brown. It’s not like the old times.”

At a Wednesday press conference, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller unveiled a new website that tracks water advisories and the government’s work to end them. Miller noted that the government had managed to end 101 advisories.

“I don’t underestimate the amount of work to be done, especially during a global pandemic,” Miller said. “But we are ready to work through it.”

Miller said the website was an attempt at greater transparency.

“People can see that, they don’t need to trust my words,” Miller said.

He celebrated that administrative achievement even as the government blew its self-imposed March 2021 deadline to lift all boil water advisories on reserves — one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s original campaign promises.

Indigenous communities still under boil water advisories won’t get clean drinking water this month as the government promised. Instead, Miller said, they will get a letter promising to meet that goal soon. Miller declined to name a new deadline.

“It’s important for those communities to know that we are there with them, and that we are relentless in getting those water advisories lifted,” Miller said. “This is something that is a basic matter of human decency that in a country like Canada people don’t have clean drinking water. It bugs me. But nobody cares what bugs me. We need to get it done.”

Quequish said he never expected the government to meet its March 2021 deadline.

“We know the government tells us one thing and does another,” Quequish said. “We’re so used to it — that the government doesn’t keep its promise — all the way back to the treaties. When we signed the treaty they promised us they would look after the First Nations people ‘as long as the sun shines and the river flows and the grass grows.’ We knew when they said it that probably won’t happen, but they said it anyway, so we’re still waiting. We don’t want to give up. We’ll still remind them.”

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