Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday December 5, 2020
Justin Trudeau won’t escape his election promise to lift water-boil advisories in First Nation communities
Five years after their election promise to lift the water-boil advisories in every First Nation community by March 2021, the federal Liberals have officially admitted they won’t meet that goal.
It was an embarrassing concession reluctantly made this week after much media prodding. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deserves the barrage of criticism coming his way from Indigenous leaders who are disheartened and disappointed by the news.
It is unacceptable that any resident of any First Nations community must wait a day longer for what almost all Canadians routinely take for granted: being able to fill a glass with safe, clean water when they turn on a tap in their home.
Trudeau has previously taken heat for breaking campaign promises to overhaul the electoral system and balance the budget, He should take his licks for failing to keep this pledge, too.
But for all that, thank goodness he made it. The federal Liberals have, in fact, made significant progress in ensuring Indigenous communities have a safe supply of water, one of life’s essentials not only for drinking but bathing and cooking.
When they came to power in 2015, there were no fewer than 105 long-term water-boil advisories in effect across Canada. Their efforts resulted in 97 of those advisories being lifted. The Liberals remain committed to getting the job done, too, and appropriately announced $1.5 billion in this week’s mini-budget to make that happen.
Yet, as they made advances in some First Nations communities, new problems and new advisories appeared in others. That’s why today, 59 long-term water-boil advisories remain in effect. That’s why there will be at least another dozen water-boil advisories in effect going into next year, the year everything was supposed to be fixed.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said this week the pandemic is partly responsible for these delays, which seems a reasonable explanation — to a point. But Miller also said the Liberals didn’t initially understand the “state of decay” in infrastructure in many First Nations communities.
So is what we’re left with a case where non-Indigenous politicians see a half-full glass on the safe-water front while Indigenous people see one that’s half-empty? Perhaps it’s both.
First Nations communities have every right to be angry that another promise to them has been broken. The Neskantaga First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, for instance, has been living with a drinking-water advisory for 25 years and was evacuated in late October after an oil sheen was discovered on its reservoir. Today, more than 250 band members are living in hotels in Thunder Bay 400 kilometres away
Can anyone seriously imagine a non-Indigenous community, for instance in southern Ontario, going more than a few days with a contaminated municipal water supply? Anyone who remembers the Walkerton, Ont., water crisis of 2000 will know how quickly authorities responded to a deadly E. coli outbreak in the town’s water supply, and how that led to more stringent water standards across the entire province.
Despite all this, the current federal government can still be credited for doing far more than its predecessors — Liberal as well as Conservative — and going a long way to ending an intolerable situation that should have been remedied decades ago.
No, the Liberals won’t meet the deadline of their campaign promise. But they should eventually keep the rest of the pledge to make safe First Nations water systems. That promise, even if critics say it has been broken, spurred necessary action and held the Liberals accountable in a way previous governments were not. It was a promise worth making as well as keeping. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)