During a town hall with Vice on October 5 Justin Trudeau announced that his Liberals are committed to helping First Nations communities get clean drinking water. He said:

“We have 93 different communities, under 133 different boil water advisories across the country. Chief Isadore Day has called for within five years there should be zero, and I’ve told the chief and I’ve told First Nations many times we agree with that, and a Canadian government led by me will address this as a top priority because it’s not right in a country like Canada that this has gone on for far too long.”

Trudeau’s announcement, though, was a bit of a surprise because the party had just released a platform and that promise, which has an estimated cost of $10 billion over 10 years, was not in it.

The Liberal platform did include $275 million in 2016-17 for Indigenous peoples, and a total over four years of just over $1.6 billion, which includes a stated goal of ensuring that the Kelowna Accord is “embraced.”

The Kelowna Accord, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2007, did include funding for clean water needs in some communities, but the cost provided was $400 million.

It was also surprising that Trudeau said during the town hall that the Liberals were prepared to work with “all 93 communities.” In March 2015 the number of First Nations’ communities under boil water advisories was listed at 135.

According to APTN, Trudeau was excluding 25 communities in BC because the province, rather than the federal government, now reports on the state of their water. Assuming then that only 118 communities need funding to replace or upgrade their water systems, $275 million amounts to around $2.3 million per community. Considering that money, according to the Liberal platform, is also supposed to support First Nations’ education, other infrastructure in First Nations’ communities and health and mental health services, it would not go very far at all.

The question then becomes whether the infrastructure line item in the platform, worth just over $5 billion in 2016/17, includes funding to help provide First Nations’ reserves with clean drinking water.

That $5 billion is, of course, part of Trudeau much touted deficit. That deficit he says will fund infrastructure and “social infrastructure” projects across the country.

Infrastructure on First Nations reserves is included in the new Minister’s mandate letter. That letter instructs her to work with the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities “in consultation with First Nations, Inuit and other stakeholders.” It also includes instructions to work with the Minister of Finance to create “predictable and sustained funding” for First Nations communities, which may allow these communities to invest in their own infrastructure needs.

It remains to be seen whether real steps will be taken. This is a matter of political will, but with record numbers of Aboriginal voters and Aboriginal MPs political will might grow.

Further reading: 

APTN: PM Trudeau to meet with Aboriginal leaders before end of year

Toronto Star: Carolyn Bennett: Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs

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