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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh greets a supporter as he arrives for a rally in Saskatoon on Friday, October 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

OTTAWA – NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said if elected, his party would do whatever it takes to ensure clean drinking water for First Nations communities facing countless long-term water advisories.

Speaking to reporters in Grassy Narrows First Nations alongside Chief Rudy Turtle, Singh said as prime minister he would prioritize a "$19 million treatment centre" requested by the community to help those impacted by mercury poisoning.

He then went a step further, promising clean drinking water for all First Nations.

"We would ensure the treatment centre is built, fully funded, and ensure that we’re taking steps not to just clean the water and treat the mercury poisoning that’s affecting people now, but also a commitment to find enough money to ensure there’s no more water advisories and drinking water issues in any Indigenous community across Canada."

Singh added that the Liberals have failed to uphold their promises to improve drinking water "by choice."

"When Mr. Trudeau can find the money to buy a pipeline, he can find the money to give corporations billions of dollars in tax cuts, the fact is, they could find the money and they’re not doing it."

Since the Liberals were elected in 2015, 87 long-term water advisories in Indigenous communities have been lifted. Another 56 remain, and the Liberals have promised to eliminate all long-term boil water advisories by 2021.

When pressed by reporters how his party would drum up the funds to pay for a policy pledge at the scale he’s promising, Singh was light on details.

"It’s a firm commitment for justice; this is a firm commitment to remedy an injustice. Why is it that in Indigenous communities it’s ok to have drinking water that’s not clean?” said Singh.

“We’ve got the technology, we’ve got the money. What we’ve lacked – what Mr. Trudeau has lacked, what Mr. Harper has lacked – is making it a priority. If we make it a priority we can get it done."

Following a 2015 campaign promise, the Liberals have long been in consultations to improve water contamination in Indigenous communities, including the Grassy Narrows region, but hadn’t settled on a firm path forward before Parliament dissolved in June.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2017 released a report analyzing federal spending on water and wastewater infrastructure for First Nations communities. It projected that the government would need to allocate an additional $1.8 billion to resolve contamination on reserves under the mandate of the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

The Liberals promised to dish over $739 million in their 2019 budget to eliminate drinking water advisories over two years.

Turtle, the NDP candidate for the Kenora, Ont. riding, said he largely got into politics because Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau broke his promise to his community and has only pledged half of money needed to build the facility.

Half a century ago, a pulp and paper mill in the area pumped approximately 10 tons of mercury into the Grassy Narrows First Nation’s water supply. The mercury contamination ruined the community’s once-vibrant fishery, which was the primary source of food for residents. This had a devastating impact on both residents’ health and their economy.

Turtle said it’s been frustrating to see progress stalled on improving the situation.

“Quite often they will just be quoting regulations and procedures and things that are normally done -- well, this is not a normal situation. It's been 50 years,” he said.

Singh said the Liberals’ actions showed "simply a lack of courage, a lack of priority (by) not putting the money up to do deal with the problem. I'm prepared to do that.”

Liberal candidate and Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan told CTV News that his party remains dedicated to the health needs of Grassy Narrows.

"The community asked for a mercury treatment facility and we’ve committed to building one. They also asked for upgrades to the existing nursing station and we’ve made significant progress on this to ensure there is access to enhanced care in this community," he wrote.

He opposed Singh’s argument that money has been a barrier to action.

"To be clear, funding is not an obstacle in these discussions. Funding will reflect the agreed upon final design that best meets the needs of community members."


'WHY AREN'T WE IMPORTANT?': RESIDENT

The need for a mercury treatment facility is critical as an estimated 90 per cent of people in Grassy Narrows First Nation suffer from the toxic effects of mercury poisoning, which include speech impairment, hearing loss and mental illness.

Longtime resident Chrissy Isaacs said that despite the tap water being contaminated, residents like her have no choice but to use it for everything except for drinking.

“What's frustrating is that, you know, these politicians always come and say you know, ‘This is what we're going to do for Grassy’ and then nothing gets done,” she said.

“Why aren't we important?”

The 39-year-old said she has been surrounded by mercury poisoning her whole life and has grown numb to political promises.

Singh has vowed to be a champion for Indigenous Canadians in a way that he said Trudeau hasn’t. He’s hoping those frustrated with the Liberal government -- many of whom voted for Trudeau in 2015 -- will give him their vote instead in 2019.

The announcement comes after news broke on Friday that the federal government would be appealing the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling which would require the government to compensate First Nations children who were separated from their families and subjected to an underfunded child-welfare system.