Hearing – Standing Committee on Public Accounts: Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities—Indigenous Services Canada
Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities—Indigenous Services Canada
(Report 3—2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada)
Karen Hogan, Chartered Professional AccountantCPA, Chartered AccountantCA
Auditor General of Canada
Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our recent report on access to safe drinking water in First Nations communities. Joining me today is Glenn Wheeler, the principal who was responsible for the audit.
Reliable access to safe drinking water is vital to the health and well‑being of all, including the people living in the more than 600 First Nations communities across Canada. Many of these communities have lived for a long time without the assurance that their drinking water is safe. In 2015, the federal government committed to eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems on First Nations reserves by March 31st, 2021.
Overall, Indigenous Services Canada has not provided the support needed to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. In fact, in December 2020, the Minister acknowledged that the department was not on track to meet its March 31st target.
We found that since the federal government’s 2015 commitment, there have been a total of 160 long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems in First Nations communities. As of November 1st, 2020, 60 remained in effect in 41 First Nations communities, with almost half of the advisories having been in place for more than a decade.
In addition, we found that some long-term advisories were lifted only as a result of interim measures that did not fully address the underlying deficiencies. For some of these water systems, long-term solutions were not expected to be completed until 2025.
The audit also found that Indigenous Services Canada’s efforts have been constrained by an outdated policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of public water systems. The department had not amended the funding formula since it was first developed 30 years ago. Until the formula is updated, it is unclear whether recent funding increases will be sufficient to meet First Nations’ water infrastructure needs.
The department has been working with First Nations to provide First Nations communities with drinking water protections comparable to other communities in Canada. However, we found that there is still no regulatory regime in place 15 years after we first recommended it.
The federal government emphasizes the importance of reconciliation and the renewal of a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous communities that is based on the recognition of Indigenous rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership. Indigenous Services Canada must work in partnership with First Nations to develop and implement lasting solutions for safe drinking water in First Nations communities. This a key component of reconciliation.
Over the last few decades, many of my predecessors have raised concerns about programs that failed to effectively serve Canada’s Indigenous peoples. I’m very concerned and honestly disheartened to find myself reporting a long-standing issue that is still not resolved. Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don’t believe anyone would say that this situation is in any way acceptable in Canada in 2021.
We made 5 recommendations to Indigenous Services Canada, and the department has agreed with all of them.
Madam Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.