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Cost of bringing First Nations water systems up to snuff could total $3.2B: PBO

OTTAWA — Jane Philpott says the federal government will spend as much money as it takes to end long-term, boil-water advisories in First Nations communities by March 2021.
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OTTAWA — Jane Philpott says the federal government will spend as much money as it takes to end long-term, boil-water advisories in First Nations communities by March 2021.

The Indigenous services minister made that vow Thursday after Parliament's budget watchdog warned that the federal government hasn't devoted anywhere near enough money to fulfil Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to end boil-water advisories within five years.

It will cost at least $3.2 billion in capital investment to bring First Nations drinking water and wastewater systems up to standards comparable to non-Indigenous communities by 2020, according to a report released by the parliamentary budget office.

That includes $1.8 billion to upgrade drinking water systems and another $1.4 billion to upgrade wastewater treatment, along with $361 million in maintenance costs.

The Trudeau government's first budget in 2016 allocated $1.8 billion over five years for improving First Nations water and wastewater systems.

But the PBO report says that falls far short of what's needed to deliver on Trudeau's 2015 campaign promise to end all long-term boil-water advisories in First Nations communities within five years.

The planned spending, combined with the money that's been devoted to improving water systems since 2011, will cover only 54 to 70 per cent — depending on population growth — of the total investments needed, the report says.

Moreover, the report notes that the Trudeau government's commitment applies only to water systems that are financially supported by the federal government — which covers most, but not all, systems on reserve.

"As such, even if the federal commitment is fulfilled, there may remain inadequate infrastructure," it says.

Philpott said the report "highlights the tremendous amount of work that has to be done" but vowed that it will get done — and on schedule.

"Our commitment is firm and Canadians need to understand that we are absolutely steadfast in our commitment to make sure that all long-term boil-water advisories in public systems on reserve will be lifted by March of 2021," she said.

"We will make sure we have the resources to do so and we have a very specific plan in place to get there."

She added that the government will study the PBO report's conclusion that more money — at least $2.35 billion more, by the NDP's estimate — will be needed.

However, Philpott also argued that the number of boil-water advisories the government is promising to fix is not as high as the numbers used by the PBO or by the NDP. The government numbers include only long-term advisories issued on public water systems for which the federal government is responsible.

By Philpott's count, there are currently 67 such boil-water advisories in effect. Since the Liberals took office in November 2015, she said 29 such advisories have been lifted, although she acknowledged that some new ones have been issued over the same period.

Her department's website showed slightly different numbers: 69 advisories still in effect, 27 lifted and 19 new ones issued — for a total reduction of eight since the Liberals took the helm.

The PBO cited Health Canada in reporting that there were 100 long-term advisories and 37 short-term advisories in effect as of last March, while the NDP put the current number at 147 — the same number arrived at by adding the boil-water and do-not-consume water advisories posted on Health Canada's website as of Thursday.

But Philpott said those higher numbers include short-term boil-water advisories, which may be in effect for only a day or two while a sewage system is repaired, for instance. They also include water systems for private entities on reserve, like a gas station, for which the government is not responsible, she said.

Charlie Angus, the NDP's Indigenous affairs critic, said the report shows the Liberal government hasn't invested enough money to meet Trudeau's promise.

"Access to clean water is a fundamental right," Angus said. "It is time the government got serious about this."

The Canadian Press