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Canada Auditor general faults Ottawa for lack of progress on lifting First Nations water advisories

23:02  25 february  2021
23:02  25 february  2021 Source:   cbc.ca

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The First Nation issued several other demands including that running water be available 24/7 before returning to the community and that an evaluation be conducted of contributing factors to the current water and public health crisis. “The Neskantaga First Nation has dealt with water quality issues for many years. We are aware of the recent rally, support the right to legally protest, and share the desire to bring clean drinking water to this community,” said communications director Pamela Smith in an email.

Why some are suing Ottawa for equality. Since the Trudeau Liberals were elected in 2015, they’ve made progress on their pledge to end long-term advisories on reserves without clean water . This summer, the Okanagan Band sued the Attorney- General of Canada in federal court, seeking an The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), which recommends advisories on First Nations lands in B.C

a sign on the side of a snow covered street: A sign in Neskantaga First Nation calls out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for failing to end the community's 25-year-long boil water advisory. © Olivia Stefanovich/CBC A sign in Neskantaga First Nation calls out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for failing to end the community's 25-year-long boil water advisory.

The federal government has not done enough to ensure people in First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water, says the federal auditor general.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed during the 2015 election to eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems on First Nations reserves by March 31, 2021.

The auditor general found that since the prime minister made that commitment, 100 advisories have been lifted. But 60 remained in effect in 41 First Nations communities as of November 2020, and some communities won't see their boil-water advisories lifted for many years.

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Neskantaga has been under a water boil advisory for more than 25 years. Moonias said the federal government needs to work with the community to find a permanent solution to the water issues. Moonias released a list of minimum demands that the First Nation says must be met before residents return to the First Nation , including running water that’s available 24 hours a day, even if a boil water advisory persists, decontamination of homes and investigation into what led to the public health crisis.

New research shows that water systems on First Nations reserves operated by people lacking adequate training are more likely to experience drinking- water advisories that last longer. Some critics argue this regulatory gap is among the most significant obstacles to further progress . "The person who has Grade 9 may not be the guy we want running our water plant," said Barry Strachan, public-works manager for the Keewaytinook Okimakanak tribal council in Northern Ontario, in an interview in 2016.

"I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved,"  Auditor General Karen Hogan told a press conference in Ottawa today.

"Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don't believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021."

a group of people in a room: Auditor General Karen Hogan holds a press conference before the tabling of several audit reports in Parliament in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. © Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press Auditor General Karen Hogan holds a press conference before the tabling of several audit reports in Parliament in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

The findings are in one of five audit reports issued by Hogan and tabled in Parliament today. One of those reports raises concerns about Transport Canada's lack of progress in ensuring safety oversight of railway companies, while another concluded Canada's national shipbuilding strategy has been slow to deliver new ships.

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While some First Nations have seen their advisories lifted , others have seen little substantive action. If recent statements from federal officials are any indication, even Garden Hill is unlikely to have its water crisis addressed any time soon — or at all. Ottawa also doesn’t track homes and community buildings that are not connected to a public water system: in other words, communities or homes that don’t have access to running water don’t get included in the advisory counts. Even getting a handle on the true severity of the crisis is difficult when the federal government plays shell games with reporting

Objective of this Guide Many First Nations persons are facing daily challenges just to access safe water for drinking and hygiene—a fundamental human right easily enjoyed by most Canadians. While First Nations persons and peoples have aboriginal and treaty rights from which they can build their advocacy, the drinking water crisis on reserves is a space where human rights are also highly relevant. This guide seeks to provide an overview of the legal framework behind the human right to water and recommendations on how to engage government actors on the topic.

The auditor's review of the First Nations drinking water crisis found Indigenous Services Canada's efforts to lift boil water advisories have been constrained by a number of issues, including a policy on funding the operation and maintenance of water infrastructure that has not been updated since it was first developed 30 years ago.

"Until the formula is updated, it will be unclear whether recent funding increases will be sufficient to allow First Nations to operate and maintain their water infrastructure," Hogan wrote.

Last fall, a CBC News survey determined the Liberal government would miss its March 2021 deadline — something that Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledged in December 2020.

Delays predate COVID-19: AG

COVID-19 pushed the timeline back on some water projects, but Indigenous Services Canada was already behind schedule by the end of March 2020 — before the pandemic hit — the audit found.

First Nations workers in Saskatchewan sacrifice wages, vacation to run underfunded water systems

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Many First Nations plant operators lack the required education and training to meet provincial standards, resulting in higher scores. Yet the department's data also raise questions about newly built plants. Of the 14 constructed in 2014, half were slapped with alarmingly high design-risk scores by the We learned about the ICMS's existence last November. INAC's media relations department acknowledged the data existed and provided general information about it, but indicated the data were not publicly available because they belonged to First Nations . The Globe applied to receive the data

People living in remote First Nations communities in Manitoba and Ontario aren't guaranteed to have access to clinical and client-care services or medical transportation benefits, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said in his report Tuesday. Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he was glad to see the auditors "get it," and that they put into the report what they heard from front-line workers, elders and youth. Fiddler cited a recent loss on a remote First Nation linked to deficient health care.

The auditor's report said there is no regulatory regime in place for managing drinking water in First Nations — something she said would provide communities with protections enjoyed by other communities in Canada.

Hogan recommended the department work with First Nations to proactively identify and address deficiencies in water systems to prevent recurring problems.

"Implementing sustainable solutions requires continued partnership between the department and First Nation," she wrote.

"Until these solutions are implemented, First Nations communities will continue to experience challenges in accessing safe drinking water — a basic human necessity."

The problems persist despite historic levels of funding from the Liberal government aimed at resolving the issue.

Shipbuilding strategy

The auditor general's review of the national shipbuilding strategy — implemented in 2010 to manufacture combat and non-combat ships for the Canadian Navy and the Coast Guard —  found that it has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

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"[The federal departments] did not manage the National Shipbuilding Strategy in a manner that supported timely renewal of the federal large vessel fleet during the audit period, but they did address issues that threatened the future renewal of the federal fleet," Hogan concluded.

The audit was conducted between Jan. 1, 2018 and Jan. 30, 2020. Only two of four ships  scheduled for delivery during that period arrived, but both were late, the audit found. The delivery dates for some other vessels also were pushed back during the audit period — in some cases by several years.

Design and construction delays have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of procuring the ships and threaten to leave Canada ill-equipped to defend and patrol its waters, Hogan warned.

"The late delivery of ships for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard could put at risk Canada's ability to perform critical operations," the auditor's report said.

"These operations support the navy's peace, defence and security missions in Canada and around the world and the coast guard's search and rescue missions, icebreaking and other operations to ensure safety in Canadian waters."

Since the audit period, the COVID-19 pandemic has further delayed ship construction. Irving Shipbuilding and Vancouver Shipyards were forced to either temporarily shut down operations or operate at reduced capacities for periods of time because of public health restrictions.

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The auditor general's report comes one day after Canada's budget watchdog predicted that construction of the navy's new frigate fleet could cost at least $77.3 billion — a number that could rise even higher if the frequently-delayed program faces any more setbacks.

Other findings

Among the other findings released by the auditor general on Thursday:

  • The Canada Revenue Agency was praised for its management of the Canada Child Benefit program, which the audit found paid out $24 billion promptly and to the right people during the fiscal year 2019–2020. But the auditors found that the government in some cases kept making payments based on outdated information — and the program's assumption that female parents are the primary caregivers isn't always correct, causing problems for some families.

  • A one-time top-up payment of $300 per child to help families during the pandemic, announced in May 2020, paid out $88 million to almost 265,000 higher-income families who wouldn't normally qualify for the benefit.

  • Transport Canada was criticized for failing to implement a number of recommendations included in a 2013 audit of its safety management practices. The most recent audit found that Transport Canada's checks on rail safety have improved to focus more on riskier areas and to better follow up on safety deficiencies in rail companies' practices. The department has not, however, examined the companies' safety management systems for effectiveness, according to the auditors — only for whether they tick the necessary regulatory boxes.

  • Staff who work in federal departments that buy complex information technology systems need better training. Public Services and Procurement Canada, Shared Services Canada, the Treasury Board and Employment and Social Development Canada are adopting "agile" procurement models that involve a lot more back-and-forth with potential vendors — something for which the officials doing the procuring aren't always equipped. The auditors also concluded procurement agencies should make more use of data analytics to spot cases of potential bid-rigging and other problems.

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