Few of us can imagine not being able to turn on the tap to get clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing. But this is the reality in hundreds of Indigenous communities across Canada, where watersheds are degraded or tainted by pollution, including from oil and gas development such as the Alberta oilsands. Many communities lack critical infrastructure to keep tap water safe. A recent CBC investigation revealed that 400 of 618 First Nations in the country experienced problems with water between 2004 and 2014.
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In our work with First Nations in the far north of Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba, the David Suzuki Foundation has visited communities that have been on boil-water advisories for decades, such as the Neskantaga First Nation and Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
In these communities, young people have never been able to drink from the tap. Instead, they've had to rely on bottled water trucked or flown in at an enormous cost to the community. Drinking or bathing in unsafe water has caused outbreaks of skin rashes, intestinal ailments and other problems, often among children.
Yesterday, with its first budget, the federal government followed up on an election promise to make clean water in Indigenous communities a priority and to end the need for boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities within five years.
The federal budget allocates $141.7 million over five years for monitoring and testing drinking water in Indigenous communities across Canada and $1.8 billion over the same time period for clean water infrastructure, such as water-filtration plants. Most importantly, money is being allocated to ensure that community members are trained to monitor water quality and to operate and maintain critical water infrastructure.
The David Suzuki Foundation is pleased to see that the prime minster is following up on his promise and that the government will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Indigenous communities to ensure they receive the same level of service as all Canadians when it comes to clean drinking water. The Foundation asked for these investments through our participation in the Green Budget Coalition and through our ongoing Right to a Healthy Environment campaign to enshrine environmental rights, like access to clean water, in the Canadian Constitution.
Although the allocation for clean water infrastructure falls short of recommendations made in a recent report commissioned by the government, the Assembly of First Nations hailed the budget as "a significant step in closing the gap in the quality of life between First Nations peoples and Canadians and beginning the process of reconciliation."
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said, "The budget begins to address decades of underfunding and neglect, which have perpetuated a growing gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians."
Investments in clean water in Indigenous communities are important in ensuring equity and reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. We must not forget that Canada has obligations to its First Peoples, enshrined in treaties and international agreements.
The federal budget offers a good first step to ensuring that these agreements are honoured and upheld, and that the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples are better supported.