“So what are the solutions!?”

The question I get, every single time I publish any piece at all on Indigenous issues is, “okay fine, but what are your solutions?” Often coupled with this question is the implication or outright accusation that all “we” (Indigenous people, or maybe just me, personally) do is complain without thinking of ways to make things better. Most frustrating is the fact that in the pieces I publish about Indigenous issues, I almost always DO provide concrete solutions. I guess people just don’t read that far?

Here’s what makes sense to most people, I think:

  • study an issue, do exhaustive research to understand a problem and the root causes
  • come up with some concrete solutions to address immediate emergency needs, as well as addressing long term root causes
  • implement those solutions
  • repeat as needed for each issue

I mean, can we all get on board with that? This approach is a heck of a lot better than editorials and coffee-shop chats, right?

Well…in many cases the first two steps have been done! I understand that it can feel like nothing has been accomplished, since so little has changed over time. If no one ever told you about the various commissions, inquiries, reports, audits and so forth, you might think that everyone is wasting so much time complaining that no one ever gets to the point of trying to fix things!

I hope right now you’re sitting there a little incredulously going, “wait, you’re saying that the facts, and the solutions, are out there? So why aren’t things better?”

We’ve skipped an important step: implementing solutions

When Canadians rightfully demand to know why conditions faced by Indigenous peoples in this country remain so dismal, folks often rush to the conclusion that everything has been tried and nothing has worked.

We have the information we need to act, we have the research that backs it up, we even have specific dollar amounts attached to many of these solutions. What we continue to not have is the political will to implement solutions.

Let me give you a very specific example. One of the perennial issues in First Nations communities is the lack of safe drinking water. In 2011, Neegan Burnside Ltd. released a comprehensive national report on the state of First Nations drinking water and waste water systems. This study itself was recommended by the Auditor General and a Senate Committee, so in a sense its existence is also a solution to the problem of “what is the actual situation?” The study is an implemented solution to the problem of lack of hard data.

That report is freely available for every person in Canada to read. It gives you background on the problem and provides a number of possible suggestions along with specific costs to implement them.

The report rightly makes note of the fact that the government must ultimately be the one to decide which solutions are implemented. After all, when it comes to implementing solutions to problems faced by Indigenous peoples, very often the responsibility lies on the government, not individual Canadians with limited political power. I point this out, because we need to make sure we understand who is accountable for lack of progress here. Nonetheless, democratic governments are supposed to take their cues from the people, so regular Canadians do have an important part to play in shifting policy.

The report clearly breaks down the projected costs to meet various needs. Please don’t ask about solutions to the problem of lack of clean drinking water on reserve, and then not read these comprehensive and detailed answers.

Here is the section on upgrading existing drinking water systems to meet Indian Affairs standards: Cost Analysis: Upgrade to Meet INAC’s Protocol: Water.

The cost? $783 million total. This includes

  • a one-time $300 million construction cost to upgrade existing systems with a 25% allowance for engineering and contingencies
  • a non-construction cost of $16.4 million to train operators, develop Maintenance Management systems, Emergency Response Plans and so on, so the systems can be self-sufficient and self-supporting
  • an annual maintenance and operation cost of $4.1 million

So while $783 million seems like a huuuuuge amount, you can see that this is not about “throwing money at the problem”. It is about building capacity. You don’t need to construct drinking water systems from scratch every single year; that $300 million one-time cost is necessary to address systems that through lack of adequate maintenance have deteriorated to the point where they no longer function properly. If the money is invested as suggested, $4.1 a year afterwards for clean drinking water on over 600 reserves across Canada is not an unreasonable amount. It’s not even a large amount.

The report goes on to discuss waste water needs as well. In the cost analysis, costs are further broken down by level of risk from high to low. This would allow the government to focus on the communities with the highest needs to get the ball rolling, and then stagger development over the next few years.

Breaking down all the costs, and what the money would specifically go towards, the Neegan Burnside report states that to really solve the issue on reserve, an immediate $1.2 billion is needed to bring water and waste water systems up to the standards created by INAC itself. This is a huge investment, but the result would be properly constructed and functioning systems, and self-sustaining management regimes. The $1.2 billion builds what is needed and ensures reserves have the capacity to keep things going.

Neegan Burnside also projected that over 10 years, a further $4.7 billion would be needed to ensure “that water and wastewater systems for First Nations are able to grow with First Nation communities”.

So break that down. If we really want to solve the issue of lack of safe drinking water on reserve we need to do the things listed in the report and spend:

  • $1.2 billion immediately (staggered if necessary to prioritize the communities with the highest need)
  • $4.1 million annually to maintain those systems forever
  • $470 million a year over 10 years to construct new, or expand existing water and wastewater facilities to match population growth on reserves

An independent assessment tells us this is what is needed. We have a plan, we have specific steps to be taken, we even know the cost and can make informed decisions about which communities need help first. The previous government failed to act, and the situation has arguably worsened since 2011.

Oh! Didn’t the Liberals put this into their 2016 budget?

On page 143 of the Liberal budget 2016, there is a reference to the 2011 Neegan Burnside report. The budget promises $1.8 billion over five years. This is a bit optimistic, because it assumes the Liberals will get reelected, so let’s not count our chicks before they hatch! In fact, the Liberal budget back-ends a lot of the promised funding, meaning it will only materialize IF they are reelected.

On pages 147 and 148 of the budget, you can see that over two years the Liberals promise to spend $618 million on “strengthening on reserve water and waste water infrastructure” as well as $55 million on water monitoring. That is a total of $673 million for two years, which is nothing to sneeze at!

Nonetheless, this amount comes nowhere near the $1.2 billion that is needed immediately just to bring water and waste water systems up to acceptable (and safe) standards and it certainly cannot cover the costs of growing these systems. At best, according to the Neegan Burnside upgrade cost summary, this amount could address short terms water and waste water management needs in the highest risk First Nations, and a fraction of the communities with medium level risk. Even if the entire $1.8 billion does materialize after a Liberal reelection, the stated needs will not be met.

Something is better than nothing, isn’t it?

Oh absolutely. This is such a vital area of need. I thought we were talking about solutions though, not just short term triage?

The longer water and waste water systems are allowed to deteriorate in First Nations, the more expensive it is going to be to fix them up. Ultimately, we need the political will to effectively address this problem in the comprehensive manner laid out by the research.

Water and waste water management is just one issue. There are many others. When faced with these issues, too often Canadians assume that a lot of work is being done to solve these problems, and it isn’t working because First Nations communities are inherently “unfixable”. This is not true. Despite pouring millions of dollars into research that results in concrete suggestions, successive Canadian governments are failing to implement these solutions. THAT is where we need to focus our attention. On applying the knowledge already out there.

We don’t lack the way, we lack the will.

How can I find the solutions that have already been proposed?

Good question! One great way to find studies on specific issues facing Indigenous communities today is to search that term + report. For example, “Aboriginal incarceration report“. You’ll find the very first hit leads you to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, and a page that has annual reports and recommendations on the issue going back to 2008-2009. These reports include a “report card” on how well (or not) the government has implemented previous suggestions so you can even find out if progress is being made.

These reports are roadmaps. We can choose to follow them or not, but regardless, they exist.

Don’t assume that everything has been tried, and it’s all failed. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples laid out a 20 year plan with 444 recommendations, almost all of which have never been implemented. Instead of proposing drastic solutions based on feeling like the situation is hopeless, why don’t we all do something much more radical? Let’s work with the solutions out there, and try…REALLY try to make things better.

Can we do that, Canada?

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