Question Period: Access to Safe Drinking Water

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy

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Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, my question is also for Senator Gold.

Senator Gold, my questions are a follow-up to questions I’ve asked you previously on water advisories.

Since 2015, progress has been made on long-term drinking water advisories, with 106 advisories having been lifted. I do congratulate Minister Miller on his work on removing drinking water advisories. However, as of April 9, 2021, there are 52 long-term drinking water advisories still in effect in 33 First Nations communities.

The government’s self-imposed March 21 deadline to lift all of these advisories has come and gone, and no new timelines have been set or announced. While the new online tool that allows the public to track the government’s progress offers greater transparency, which is positive, it does fail to give any sort of certainty to the public on when or if, indeed, the project will be completed.

Senator Gold, can you tell us why the March deadline was missed? Also, when can First Nations communities expect to see all of these advisories lifted?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Thank you very much for your question and for reminding this chamber of the important and unfinished business we need to do to ensure that all Canadians, and First Nations in particular, have access to clean water.

It is true that there remain 52 long-term advisories. I want to take a second for the benefit of those who may be watching and to remind senators and viewers what is involved in these advisories. There’s a feasibility study stage, a design stage, a construction stage, and the training and monitoring that follows it.

With regard to the 52 long-term advisories, 3.8% are in the feasibility study phase, 11.5% are in the design phase, 55.8% are under construction, and 29% are projects where the advisories will be lifted soon.

My last point, and I think this was made clear by Minister Miller, is that the five-year period refers to one advisory, I’m told, where one First Nation is scheduled to lift its long-term drinking water advisory in the next couple of months, but the government has made a commitment to infrastructure projects that will take some further years to complete.

Thank you for your question.

Senator Cordy: Thank you, Senator Gold. You’re absolutely right; everybody should have access to clean drinking water. Thank you for outlining all the steps that are involved in this process. I didn’t realize it was that technical, so I appreciate you outlining it for us.

However, what concrete steps — and I know that the government has provided extra funding — is the government taking to ensure that the remaining advisories are lifted as quickly as possible because, as you stated, everybody should have access to clean drinking water in Canada?

I know the extra funding will be beneficial and so is building the infrastructure, which is important as you’ve already said. How can we ensure the advisories are lifted as quickly as possible?

Senator Gold: Thank you for the question. The short answer is that it’s very difficult to know with any precision when they will all be lifted, that’s for sure.

The fact is the federal government works in collaboration with the communities to create the plans and put the infrastructure and human resources in place to manage the water situation properly. In that regard, there have been significant investments — hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars — in infrastructure and in additional training. Some First Nations communities continue to have problems retaining the personnel who have been trained to manage the infrastructure.

All of this is to say that the federal government is working diligently with First Nations communities to solve the particular problems that beset them. Although this government is proud and pleased that it has made considerable progress since it took office, much more needs to be done and will remain needed to be done in the years to come.

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