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

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.

“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.”

Karen Hogan, the auditor general of Canada, appears before an N.W.T. standing committee hearing. (Government of Northwest Territories)

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.

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 2021 — before the pandemic hit — the audit found.

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.

“[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.

“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.

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 has ensured accurate and timely payments to millions of families who qualify.

  • 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 while the department had increased safety inspections and audits of railway safety management systems, it had not assessed whether these measures actually improved rail safety.