The pandemic has put some of the Liberal government’s key deadlines of its reconciliation agenda in jeopardy, including a promise to end all long-term boil-water advisories on First Nations by next March.
Last week’s throne speech indicated a shift in language around the commitment to eliminate the long-term advisories. It dropped mention of the 2021 deadline, which was clearly stated in the previous throne speech in 2019.
A senior government source told CBC News the Liberals are not as comfortable with the March 2021 target date they set, as they were before COVID-19 hit.
The virus has added an extra layer of complications for the government to fulfil the promise first made during the 2015 election.
Ottawa was already dealing with short construction seasons in communities that rely on ice road transport for heavy equipment and resupply. Now, some communities are not letting outside contractors in to protect themselves from COVID-19, which may push construction deadlines back even further.
Currently, there are 61 long-term water advisories in effect on Indigenous reserves. Eighty-eight have been lifted since November 2015.
Despite the challenges, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told CBC News he is still hopeful the government can meet its spring 2021 target, and will be spending more funds this fall to make it happen.
“That deadline is very much one that we are working aggressively to meet,” Miller said. “This isn’t a question of funds, this is a question of planning.”
Keeping people safe from second wave
But the opposition is skeptical.
“All of a sudden, they’ve taken out time frames — it’s a real problem,” said Cathy McLeod, the Conservative critic for Crown-Indigenous relations.
“I can understand the disappointment of communities, of Indigenous communities across this country.”
Rob Houle, an Indigenous advocate from Wapsewsipi (Swan River) First Nation in Alberta and research fellow at Toronto-based Yellowhead Institute, said the latest speech from the throne is a repetition of old Liberal promises, indicating goals are largely aspirational.
“For the government to continue to pushback these timelines shows that either the investments are inadequate or the approach is faulty,” Houle said.
“It should not take that long to solve some of these things and improve people’s lives on reserve and in communities when they [government] can do much, much more for regular Canadians at the drop of a hat when something like COVID-19 hits.”
Priority number one for Miller remains keeping people safe in the face of a second wave of the pandemic. The minister said he is extremely concerned with the number of COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities.
The department recorded 116 active COVID-19 cases, as of Thursday, for a total of 639 since the pandemic began. Eleven people have died from the coronavirus on-reserve so far.
However, Miller insisted the pandemic is not preventing him from moving to close some of the socio-economic disparities that COVID-19 laid bare.
For example, Indigenous Services Canada is seeing the need for mental health services rise. The government announced $82.5 million last month for Indigenous mental health support during COVID-19 and it is expected to announce more money in the months ahead.
The government is working toward new Indigenous health legislation, and a mental health and wellness strategy.
A senior government source said the Liberals are still on track to close the infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities by 2030, which will bring broadband internet access and new housing.
MMIWG action plan, UNDRIP legislation to come
Last week’s throne speech also mentioned the government will accelerate work on an action plan in response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls after the pandemic scuttled plans to have a document ready by last June.
Crown-Indigenous Minister Carolyn Bennett said the plan is being put together from pieces developed by governments and Indigenous groups.
Bennett said the government earmarked $6 million per year for the next five years for the action plan to make sure it can be refreshed.
“All of those pieces are coming together,” Bennett said. “It will be a living document that will continue to reflect the views of families and survivors as to whether it’s working or not and then each of the provinces and territories that are doing the same thing.”
The Liberals are also planning to introduce new legislation on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) this fall. The Liberals originally said the legislation would pass by the end of the year.
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, NDP MP for Nunavut, calls the Liberal promises “lipwork” and said the government still has yet to meet basic human needs in the territories, such as adequate housing.
Qaqqaq said the pandemic shouldn’t be used as an excuse to postpone promises.
“I think it’s one of the tactics they know how to use best,” Qaqqaq said.
“They are great at making excuses. They are great at finding loopholes. They are great at making it possible to see those excuses as acceptable.”