Federal Response to Auditor General Report Not Enough to Secure Safe Water for First Nations

THUNDER BAY, ON: Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says the Government of Canada’s response to yesterday’s report by the Auditor General of Canada falls shorts of the specific commitments needed to ensure that safe drinking water is available in First Nations communities:

“The Auditor General has confirmed what we have been saying for years – that Indigenous Services Canada has failed to provide the necessary support to ensure that First Nations communities have access to safe drinking water. We acknowledge that Minister Miller has reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to resolving these issues, but statements committing to funding operation and maintenance costs at 100 per cent are misleading.

The federal government’s method for calculating operation and maintenance costs for water and wastewater systems does not meet the true costs for our communities. Our own research places federal funding at less than 50 per cent of the actual costs for many of our communities.

The government’s plans for funding and resources are vague, open-ended goals without firm timelines or accountability. If Canada is truly committed to ending the ongoing water crisis, they need to establish new, clear policies to ensure that funding structures for new plants, upgrades, and operation and maintenance truly meet the needs of our communities.”

The current Indigenous Services Canada Cost Reference Manual is an outdated document which does not capture the true costs of operating and maintaining water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nations communities. In Section 3.75 the Auditor General’s report states:

Given that the department had not updated its operations and maintenance funding policy or updated the formula used to calculate operations and maintenance costs, it was unclear whether the announced funding increases would be sufficient to allow First Nations to operate and maintain their water infrastructure.”

The lack of sufficient operation and maintenance funding is one of the main causes of water problems. Even with the Minister’s commitment that funding will be provided at 100 per cent, the current funding formula is severely flawed and operation and maintenance will remain significantly underfunded. Without a commitment to examining and updating the cost reference formula for assessing costs, an endless cycle of breakdowns and service disruptions will continue.

The design and construction of water treatment and distribution systems in remote First Nations presents unique challenges, and operation and maintenance funding are severely inadequate under current federal formulas. NAN’s 2018 Education Infrastructure Needs Assessment found that current funding levels only covers approximately 44 per cent of the actual costs of properly operating and maintaining infrastructure in NAN communities.

In December 2020, the Government of Canada abandoned its commitment to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021.

The Auditor General’s report, Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities – Indigenous Services Canada, can be found here: https://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_202102_03_e_43749.html

For more information please contact:
Michael Heintzman,
Director of Communications
Cell: (807) 621-2790