As of February, 61 Indigenous reserves were under long-term drinking water advisories, half of which remain unresolved after more than a decade. These water advisories warn people to either boil water before use, not to consume it, or avoid it altogether because of toxicity levels.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to end these advisories by March 2021. But while the government presented action plans on many important topics during the speech from the throne on Sept. 23, it failed to mention its promise to bring safe drinking water to all Indigenous reserves by next spring.
The lack of acknowledgement in this year’s speech has led some Canadians to doubt the government’s ability to meet the deadline.
A senior government source told CBC News that the government is no longer as comfortable with the target date as they were before COVID-19 hit the country. The pandemic has made it more difficult for construction workers to enter communities, potentially resulting in a delay in resolving these critical water supply issues.
“It should not take that long to … improve people’s lives on reserves and in communities when [the government] can do much, much more for regular Canadians at the drop of a hat when something like COVID-19 hits,” said Rob Houle, an Indigenous advocate from Swan River First Nation.
The oldest advisory that’s still in effect today was put in place back in 1995 on the Neskantaga First Nation. This means that the Neskantaga reserve has now been deprived of safe drinking water for a quarter of a century.
In September 2019, the remote community declared a state of emergency after a water pump failed, leaving some homes completely without running water and others with water that was not safe to use except to flush toilets. One year later, its people still have to boil water for safety.
The severe and prolonged nature of these drinking water advisories is particularly concerning during the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to clean water and sanitation is essential to staying healthy.
Around the world, Indigenous communities have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic because of structural inequalities when it comes to water access, health care, and living conditions.
In Canada, these same inequalities are at play, putting Indigenous people at greater risk, especially if the country experiences a second wave. On reserves with an at-risk water supply, people not only have to take extra precaution with their drinking water, but also with water used for sanitation and hygiene.
Under the boil water advisory, which makes up the majority of all long-term advisories, communities need to boil all water for at least one minute before drinking, brushing their teeth, or cooking, and should not use tap water to bathe infants, toddlers, or the elderly.
The other two advisories — do not consume and do not use — have even stricter guidelines.
In regards to meeting the March 2021 target, the Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told CBC News that he is still hopeful, and that the government will be spending more funds in the coming months to make it happen.
"That deadline is very much one that we are working aggressively to meet," Miller said. "This isn't a question of funds, this is a question of planning."
In its 2016 budget, the government had committed $1.8 million over five years to fix and maintain the on-reserve water and wastewater infrastructure. Now with only half a year left, the government has lifted 88 long-term drinking water advisories, and still has more than 60 remaining.
Over the past two decades, Canada has shown a pattern of overpromising and underperforming on water and sanitation on Indigenous reserves, according to the Human Rights Watch. Whether Trudeau’s government will continue on this path of disappointment is to be determined.