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INDIGENOUS SERVICES MINISTER ON FIXING LONG-TERM WATER ADVISORIES,
AND OVERCROWDED HOUSING DURING A PANDEMIC
The transciption below has been edited for clarity and length.
WT - WaterToday, we'll be doing interviews with all of the Indigenous communities that have long-term issues with potable water and wastewater. Given the questions raised yesterday in the auditor general's report, is there something you would like to say to the bands themselves concerning their potable water or lack of potable water situation? Something that I can quote directly from you to them on the phone.
Minister Miller - I share the disheartening conclusions of the auditor general, but I think yesterday's report comes as no surprise to those communities that are affected. Part of the work I've been doing with my team over the last 15 months as a Minister was to identify those issues that we need to act on as a government, over and above builds, new builds and removing long-term water advisories.
In early December, we announced that we would fix the issues that were raised in the report - such as operations and maintenance that reflect a 30-year outdated model - through an investment of $1.5 Billon. Our goal is both to accelerate investments to lift the water advisories throughout the challenges that we face with COVID , and to get rid of the 80/20 funding model - 80 percent from the federal government and 20 percent from the communities - which was just putting at risk critical infrastructure in the communities. And what that will do effectively over the next year, is double the Operations and Maintenance funding, in comparison to the benchmark year of 2015, and over a number of years, go up to triple and quadruple it, which is a transformative way in how we approach water and is key to ensuring that the federal government is walking hand-in-hand with those communities, past March 2021.
WT - When I approach the bands, I expect there will be some frustration if they have continued issues around potable water, can they contact your office directly?
Minister Miller - Absolutely, and this is part of the outreach that we are currently doing with my team at Indigenous Services Canada. I would note that the auditor general reported that half of the remaining long term water advisories have been on for 10 years or more. Half of those communities are producing clean water and are, I would say, close to lifting while the other half, for the large part, have plans to go to either new builds or investments from the government of Canada to lift them over a sequenced time frame. And if that isn't the case, we certainly will move quite swiftly to address that. The difference now is that we have the resources and the financial backing of the government of Canada to ensure that the government is there to lift those water advisories and approach water as a critical asset in the community in a different way than we've done in the past.
WT - That's about the best hope going that I've seen since I've been doing this. Ok, I'll move onto COVID now. Can you tell us what, if anything, is being done differently now that we know the variants are here and are reaching the remote communities?
Minister Miller - First, I want to say that the work that has been done by the overwhelming majority of communities across Canada has really been exemplary, dealing with historical inequities that put Indigenous communities three and a half to five times more at risk than non-Indigenous communities. These communities are really fighting the odds when it comes to COVID. And these aren't numbers that come out of thin air, they're documented by the CDC in the States. The odds faced in Canada are no different, and communities have been incredible in fighting back those odds from the outset. But the socio-economic factors and the social determinants of health that were there in the first place haven't magically disappeared. And so when it comes to variants - and I say this to put context to a very scary development in these variants of concern - their potential to spread like wildfire in communities that face, namely, and it's important to say it straight out, overcrowded housing which is a vector of spread.
We know that this is not new to COVID. We saw that with tuberculosis in Inuit communities where, in some cases, rates are 300 times what Canada has, it is not new. And so that is something that we have to work with. And as we ask Indigenous communities to take extraordinary measures that we wouldn't ask non-Indigenous communities to do - repurposing gyms, having isolation units - we're really doing the best we can to ensure that people stay safe.
We've had variant scares in communities like Pauingassi and Cross Lake which turned out not to be the case, but did ring an alarm bell. And you need to presume that they are variants until you've ruled them out. So be extra cautious. Those basic health protocols like washing your hands, keeping your distance, limiting your interaction, just really bringing that home and ensuring that local health authorities have all the assets available and resources available to get that message out and to make sure that people are doing what they should to prevent the variants, one from getting in, and when and if they do, from spreading. We've had undocumented cases again, reports of those variants being present in communities. And it is not a matter of if, but when they are finally identified. The next logical point of discussion is most likely one in and around vaccines, ensuring that communities are being properly prioritized, according to the latest revised rules of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
WT - I'm going to jump in here. I called several remote communities this morning and they said that they had requested extra housing so that they could distance properly, and in their words, 'crickets'. Should they contact you directly if their requests were not answered?
Minister Miller - I've heard the same thing, but there are two discussions to be had here. One, the real and present challenge that we need to face head-on coming out of COVID is how to address the historical inequity in and around overcrowding in housing, as a health challenge as much as a housing challenge and an infrastructure challenge. You can imagine how difficult it is to signal a massive housing build in the middle of a historical pandemic. So, the question then is how do we alleviate some of the overcrowding during COVID? And that's a multipronged approach, one ensuring that people can properly isolate, making sure communities have the proper resources to repurpose gyms and again….
WT – Many say, they don't any solutions now, Minister Miller -.
Minister Miller - Well, that leads me to the second point I was about to make which is that we do have the opportunity to appropriate and repurpose a number of modular units to get into communities and we have done so in a number of cases. But again, it depends on the community. It depends on the plans they have. And if some communities are not hearing something, then they should absolutely contact me. I'm in contact with a number of the communities that are in rather significant outbreaks as to how we do precisely that. Another element that I didn't mention that resides under CMHC, is the over $1 billion rapid housing initiative that was announced by Minister Hussen to which Indigenous communities are eligible. That process is still ongoing.
And I know we're in late February, but I'm hoping that we do have some news soon on that extraordinary initiative that was announced a few months ago.
WT - Is that money available now to communities if they need extra housing or is this something that will take six to eight months?
Minister Miller - Again, we don't know the full course of the pandemic and whether there'll be a third wave and how long this will actually persist.
We do see light at the end of the tunnel, and I believe these rapid housing units are supposed to be built in the current year, as the tendering process for that initiative closed at the end of December.
There are a number of Indigenous communities that did apply for their needs, and those communities are eagerly awaiting answers. But I don't have one for them on that particular initiative as of yet. On the other hand, in communities like Shamattawa that had a very large outbreak in December, Indigenous Services Canada was able to find extraordinary funds to get to them and to be able to alleviate on an emergency basis some of their needs, because the spread was due in part to the overcrowding.
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