Federal Indigenous Affairs Reorganization Creates a Golden Moment for First Nations Infrastructure
Development and Innovation Public-Private Partnerships can play a critical role in addressing the infrastructure gap in First Nations communities.
It is too early to say for certain what the long-term effects will be of the division of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into two distinct ministries, one focused on relations and the other on services. What is clear is that this action has provided an occasion during which profound change for the better may be uncharacteristically attainable. Among those in the know, one of the greatest hopes is that a new and better system for developing Indigenous infrastructure will rise from the mix.
Michael Lindsay is the Global Director, Infrastructure Planning & Advisory, for consulting engineering company Hatch. His team has been working with Joe Wabegijig, Director of Public Works for the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation (COTTFN), and their council near London, ON to find an infrastructure solution to their water treatment and distribution problems, an issue they share with more than a hundred First Nations communities across Canada. “There is no ambiguity about the fact that a real infrastructure gap exists in First Nations communities,” Lindsay says. “Each year the federal government prioritizes projects based solely on the severity of health and safety issues, and still exhausts its allocated funding before all urgent needs are met.”
There is need for rapid development of locally owned infrastructure in these communities, and a need for assurance that these assets will be efficiently and effectively maintained and operated over their lifecycle. Some communities, like the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, see a solution to this problem in public-private partnerships (P3s), but current bureaucratic processes make moving forward with this solution more difficult. “Canada has been a leader in creating innovative P3 infrastructure projects,” says Lindsay. “First Nations communities with an ability to self-finance critical projects need a ‘docking station’ in Ottawa that is empowered to bypass typical procurement processes in order to get these projects done faster and better.”
It’s not clear at this point whether either of the two new ministries will be the appropriate base for this sort of project. Perhaps the Canadian Infrastructure Bank should play that role, or perhaps an entirely new entity is needed. Regardless of the specifics of the path forward, this opportunity for change must not be wasted.
There are so many First Nations communities in Canada being put at risk by insufficient infrastructure, and water treatment is only one example. These communities are motivated to find a solution, they’ve done their due diligence, and many of them are in a position to provide their own financing for these projects. What they need now is federal buy-in for a process to move these projects forward in a timely manner. And there are no real roadblocks to overcome in doing so. “The good news is that the creation of the Infrastructure Bank, and Indigenous Services, offers the hope for a new approach,” says Lindsay. “All that is required is the political will to do things differently.”