Aboriginal Leaders Don't Buy That Trudeau Can End Canada's Water Crisis in Five Years

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As Justin Trudeau's Liberals announced their first budget and flaunted big spending on Aboriginal issues, with an aim to fulfill their ambitious pledge to provide clean drinking water for all of Canada's Indigenous communities, First Nations Chiefs looked on skeptically.

"Is that realistic?" asked Chief Elaine Johnston of Serpent River about Trudeau's election promise to end boil water advisories on reserves in five years. Her community finally built a water treatment plant last fall after 30 years of trying — and the "state of the art" facility is already broken.

"Unless they've got some magic hat they can pull out, I don't think they can do it," she lamented.

Across Canada, excluding British Columbia, there are 86 First Nations on boil water advisories — some of them for decades.

On Tuesday, the Liberals announced $1.8 billion over five years for water infrastructure on First Nations, and another $141.7 million over five years to monitor the quality of water on reserves. Of that spending, $618 million comes in the next two years.

The spending is part of what the Liberals say are calling historic investments in Indigenous issues, totalling a whopping $8.4 billion dollars in spending on everything from housing and education to a national inquiry into more than a thousand Indigenous women who have disappeared or been murdered across Canada since 1980.

But money earmarked for water pales in comparison to a 2011 report commissioned by the government that found it would cost $5 billion over 10 years to upgrade water and sewage infrastructure on reserves. An investment of $1.2 billion was needed immediately to get First Nations up to the agency's standards, the report said.

And when they heard the numbers for water infrastructure, chiefs of reserves that don't have safe water to drink told VICE News the problem is extremely complex, and can't be solved by merely throwing money at the problem.

Related: Canada's Liberals Vow to End Rampant Boil Water Advisories on Reserves

Serpent River First Nation in southern Ontario was almost a success story. After working for 30 years toward ending water advisories in the community, the reserve opened its first water treatment plant last fall.

But the plant is already broken, and now the First Nation is back to boiling water.

The problem, Johnston says, isn't only a lack of money — it's red tape and slow-moving government policy. So she wonders how the federal government will solve boil water advisories across the country within five years.

When Johnston was growing up on the reserve, people relied on well water and hauling water from tributaries of Georgian Bay. In 1994, the reserve began looking into what it would take to build a water treatment plant, beginning a lengthy process involving water testing, various studies, and proposals to the federal agency tasked with overseeing Aboriginal issues.

But as Johnston tells it, the federal government kept changing the goalposts. The First Nation was expected to meet certain standards, but those standards kept changing.

Indigenous Affairs, the federal agency, agreed to the treatment plant in May 2013, and J.L. Richards & Associates was contracted to build what they said would be a "state of the art" plant, Johnston said.

The treatment plant was designed to filter out high levels of Trihalomethanes, known by the shorthand THMs, which Health Canada says can cause cancer. But the membrane used to filter the water broke down and the engineering firm responsible sent it first to Ohio and then to Europe for tests. They're hoping to get it up and running again as soon as possible. "If it doesn't fix the problem, then we've got a treatment plant that doesn't work," said Johnston.

Johnston also described a chronic issue with red tape, in general. For example, Serpent River had $700,000 it had raised for the treatment plant but did not require in the end. They wanted to use the money on fire hydrants, instead. But Indigenous Affairs stood in the way, telling the reserve it was against their policy.

'Unless they've got some magic hat they can pull out, I don't think they can do it.'

"The government red tape, and the government policies and the way they spend money prevents movement forward," Johnston said. She commended the government on its "lofty goal" set out in the budget, "but they're going to have to do some internal moving of their policies if they truly want to eradicate boil water advisories to communities in the next five years."

Serpent River isn't alone in its decades-long fight to get a water treatment plant.

Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, an isolated island reserve that sits on the Ontario-Manitoba border, has been on a boil water advisory for close to 20 years. The reserve is building an access road with the help of all three levels of government that they hope will make it cheaper and easier to build a water treatment plant.

Despite commissioning a detailed design study for the water treatment plant in 2010, the reserve still has no construction in sight. And with every year that passes, costs increase.

Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky is optimistic about the government spending announced Tuesday, but there's frustration in his voice.

"They need to prioritize and make sure that water is a basic right and make sure those needs are met. It can be done," he said. "I don't know if we'll ever get a water treatment plant at some point. But we'll keep pushing, we'll keep pressing for that."

He added: "I think we're on the right track at least."

A spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs said the government offered Shoal Lake 40 a water treatment plant to share with neighboring reserve Shoal Lake 39, but Redsky said the reserve turned the offer down because they consider themselves as independent community and as such, deserve their own infrastructure.

Related: Canada's Ice Roads Are Melting — And That Is Terrible News for Aboriginal Communities

And according to Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, part of the problem is the lack of a full understanding of the water problem — and potential solutions. He expects the problem to get worse in the future, as existing systems deteriorate and become outdated.

"We're encouraged by the fact that there will be $1.8 billion spent over the next five years, but what does that mean when we look at the fact that it's probably going to cost more?" He said. "How do we ensure that over the next five years that number is actually going to eliminate all boil water advisories? We don't know that yet, and I don't think the federal government knows that yet."

He noted that jurisdictional issues may arise. In BC, for example, the province is entirely responsible for monitoring water quality.

Still, Day was cautiously optimistic and said the Liberal funding was a far cry from the "doom and gloom" under previous Conservative government.

"It's a given that we're going to want more money," he said. "But what we have now, let's work with it."

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont
Photo by John Woods/The Canadian Press