10/05/2019 16:02 EDT | Updated 10/06/2019 09:35 EDT

NDP Pledge $1.8 Billion For Clean Drinking Water In Indigenous Communities

"If this was an issue in Toronto, in Vancouver, in any city around the world, around Canada, there would be no debate."

GRASSY NARROWS, Ont. — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh promised Saturday to do “whatever it takes” to ensure every Indigenous community has clean drinking water, saying the government should be able to find the $1.8 billion required.

Singh was visiting Grassy Narrows, a northern Ontario First Nation that has grappled for decades with mercury poisoning from contaminated water.

He said an NDP government would immediately spend $19 million to fund a mercury poisoning treatment centre in the community, whose problems are a visible symbol of the challenges the Liberals have faced around their promises to advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

There is no excuse for any community in Canada to not have access to clean drinking water, Singh said, bristling at questions about the potential cost.

“Yes, I’m saying let’s do whatever it takes to clean that drinking water,” Singh said. “This is a firm commitment to remedy an injustice...If this was an issue in Toronto, in Vancouver, in any city around the world, around Canada, there would be no debate. We would get it done.”

Singh pointed to an estimate from the parliamentary budget office that $1.8 billion is the minimum capital investment to meet First Nations’ clean drinking water needs. He said the Liberals have found billions to buy a pipeline, so the Canadian government should “absolutely” be able to find $1.8 billion for water.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh makes an offering of tobacco at the monument to the local victims of residential schools on the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario on Saturday, October 5, 2019. 

“The fact is they could find the money, they’re not doing it,” Singh said. “It’s a choice they’re making.”

Across the country, there are currently 56 long-term boil water advisories on reserves.

The Liberals said they have invested about $2 billion to improve access to clean and safe drinking water on reserve, and 87 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since 2015. They say they are on track to lift all of them by 2021.

The NDP has the same target.

The Liberals also said they have guaranteed money to start construction of the Grassy Narrows mercury treatment facility — they allocated $10 million — and committed to ongoing operating funding.

Grassy Narrows has suffered from the health impacts of mercury contamination stemming from when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s.

Singh also slammed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for the federal government’s decision Friday to appeal a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering Ottawa to pay billions of dollars in compensation to First Nations children and their families. The tribunal said the government “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on-reserve by not properly funding child and family services.

Trudeau said he agrees with many of the tribunal’s findings, but that more time is needed for consultation than the tribunal’s Dec. 10 deadline allows.

Singh urged Trudeau to drop the appeal, saying he shouldn’t be taking First Nations children to court.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2019.