OTTAWA - The federal government spent more than $10 million in the last three years on bottled drinking water, and more than $15 million in the last five years.
The revelation came in response to a question put on the order paper by NDP MP Bruce Hyer in February. Members of Parliament can request information from the government, which must respond within 45 days or send the issue to committee.
Hyer said Wednesday the number shocked him.
"I'm surprised we're using bottled water at all," he said. "We all know it's a bad idea. And you can get as good, or better, tap water in most cities in Canada. It's a big waste of money on top of everything else."
Also on Wednesday, the advocacy group Polaris Institute and the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Nova Scotia released their own study, called "Bottled Watergate: Why is the Federal Government spending millions of tax dollars on bottled water?" They found 131 separate contracts to purchase bottled water from 53 different companies totalling more than $7.2 million.
"It turns out it was worse than we thought," said Joe Cressy, the campaign coordinator at Polaris Institute and author of the report. "This is deeply, deeply concerning."
Cressy said that "we believe there's a purpose and function for bottled water, whether it's in an emergency or a remote area where drinkable water is not available."
But neither report specifies the exact use of the bottled water, whether it's for armed forces in emergency situations or for office meetings. About 28 departments reported spending taxpayer money on bottled water in the last five years.
Indian and Northern Affairs spent $3.4 million on bottled water in the past five years. A spokeswoman from the department confirmed that $3.3 million worth of bottled water went to supplying First Nations reserves when there was any question regarding the safety of the drinking water.
In the past five years, Public Works and Government Services spent $3 million, the Department of National Defence spent $2.6 million and Health Canada spent $1.2 million. Spokespeople from these departments were unable to say Wednesday how the bottled water purchased by their departments was distributed.
It's difficult to see how bottled water from some departments goes toward anything but employee use. Since fiscal 2004, Library and Archives Canada spent $81,436 on bottled water, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission spent $56,053 and the Privy Council spent $162,644.
"Surely the Privy Council Office has working water fountains," said Cressy.
Parks Canada, by contrast, reported not spending a dime on water.
News of millions of tax dollars spent on buying water comes amid growing concerns about the amount of energy used in producing and recycling plastic water bottles, as well as the number of plastic bottles that end up in landfills. Several Canadian cities have either banned, or are contemplating banning, the sale of plastic water bottles in municipal-run buildings. The City of Ottawa, which is considering a ban, estimates that it recovered 17 million plastic water bottles for recycling in 2008, and that 16 million ended up in the landfill. Canadians go through at least one billion plastic water bottles a year.
"Over this same time period our government was spending millions on fancy bottled water, our First Nations have suffered through more than a hundred Boil Water and Do Not Drink water advisories," said Hyer, the MP for Thunder Bay-North Superior, in a statement Wednesday. "The government must rethink the way it handles water in Canada, and it is unthinkable that we are virtually the only industrialized nation that doesn't even have a national water policy."
According to the Polaris/CUPE Nova Scotia report, the money spent on bottled water could pay for 3,000 indoor or 600 outdoor water fountains, or "to upgrade or significantly improve a water treatment plant in a First Nations community in Canada."