Photo: Government must do more to address First Nations' water woes

(Credit: Sam Cox via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario has had to boil water since 1995. "We're over 20 years already where our people haven't been able to get the water they need to drink from their taps or to bathe themselves without getting any rashes," Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias told CBC News in 2015. Their water issues have yet to be resolved.

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They're not alone. In fall last year, 156 drinking water advisories were in place in First Nations in Canada. More than 100 are routinely in effect — some for years or decades. According to a 2015 CBC investigation, "Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade."

Water advisories vary in severity. A "boil water advisory" means residents must boil water before using it for drinking or bathing. "Do not consume" means water is not safe to drink or consume and a "do not use advisory" means water is unsafe for any human use.

Water on First Nations reserves is a federal responsibility, but "severe underfunding" (in the government's own words) for water treatment plants, infrastructure, operations, maintenance and training has led to this deplorable situation. Canada has no federal standards or binding regulations governing First Nations' drinking water.

After years of pressure from First Nations and Indigenous and social justice organizations, the Liberal party promised in its 2015 election campaign to end all First Nations' long-term drinking water advisories within five years of being elected. In 2016, the new government's budget included $1.8 billion over five years, on top of core funding for First Nations' water infrastructure, operations and management. Funds have gone to help Neskantaga and other communities, but money's not enough. If the federal government is to fulfil its commitment to ending advisories in five years, it must reform its system.

The David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians have published a report card rating government's progress on meeting its commitment in nine First Nations in Ontario, which has the highest number of water advisories in Canada. The "Glass half empty?" report found advisories in three communities have been lifted or will likely be lifted within five years. Efforts are underway in three other communities, but uncertainty lingers about whether they'll succeed within the five-year period. Three others are unlikely to have advisories lifted within five years without reformed processes and procedures. And in one community that had its advisory lifted, new drinking water problems emerged, illustrating the need for sustainable, long-term solutions.

It's unacceptable that so many First Nations lack clean water and face serious water-related health risks — especially for children and the elderly — in a country where many people take abundant fresh water for granted. The United Nations recognizes access to clean water and sanitation as human right, and Canada has further obligations under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The report card concludes that the system for addressing unsafe drinking water is overly cumbersome and must be streamlined, First Nations must have more decision-making power to address community-specific drinking water issues, and government must increase transparency around progress and budgetary allocations. It calls on government to redouble its efforts to advance First Nations-led initiatives, fulfil its fiduciary responsibility to First Nations, respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and ensure the human right to safe and clean drinking water.

The federally funded Safe Water Project is one example of a First Nations-led approach. The Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council started the initiative in 2014 in response to long-term advisories in four of six member nations. The project keeps management at the community level and includes training and certification of local water operators, operational support while local water operators pursue certification, and remote water quality monitoring technology.

The project's success illustrates the benefits of a local approach. Community-specific, traditional and cultural knowledge are integral to developing lasting solutions. Because the federal government holds the purse strings, it calls most of the shots and often overlooks knowledge held by community members. This needs to change.

Clean drinking water on reserves is not just an Indigenous issue. It's a human right and it should concern all of us.

February 16, 2017

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Oct 03, 2017
8:32 AM

I still do not understand.

Each community has their own water treatment facility? Each community has chosen what type of water treatment they want? Each community has hired their own company to build their water treatment facility? Then people from the community are trained to be able to completely run this facility? There is no over seeing First Nation’s councel to monitor each and every water treatment facility across Canada or First Nations chosen territories? How many people in each community are trained to care for the water?
Are school children taught about the treatment plants? Are high school students given summer jobs at the plants? What about school coops? The WHOLE intire world wants to help. That is a lot of engineers, hydrology people, a lot of really smart people to help create different ideas for a sustainable water treatment facility. No? If the world’s inventors, scientists were given the task of problem solving several different ideas and a First Nations councel to learn about and chose a few different ‘types’ or models, and then the scientists come into the communities and try and get their prototype working in the weather and terrain environments….

Why am I not understanding this problem? What am I missing. Are First Nations people not able to go to the world and say hey we are looking for ideas what do you have. What am I missing?

My mother was adopted I have no idea of my hearitage. Is there a place I can research that has things point form organized explaining why? Forget the money. What is the reason? Because the world and United Nations and all of the people in Canada will fright to have this corrected. I cannot fight because nothing is clear but whole communities are without water. WTF.

Sincerely, Morganne Edmison

Sep 23, 2017
9:14 PM

Do reserves have full jurisdiction over their waters? I read once about a reservation in Mexico which faced a water quality crisis. In this case, an outside entity was polluting a water source which led directly into the reservation, leading to the reservation’s water being full of contaminants. When the reservation tried to put a stop to the pollution, they were told that they had no legal right to stop the outside entity from their practice. Can this apply to the water crisis the First Nations are facing in Canada? If this is the case, shouldn’t the government step in and put a stop to any type of pollution which negatively effects any population, whether it be the reservations or an affluent neighborhood? If not, I believe this is a matter of government wrong-doing, in which they are not addressing the right concerns and implementing enough policies to protect their people.

Feb 19, 2017
11:44 AM

Water treatment plants are only a band-aid solution. We need to look at the causes of the problem which are mining and the fossil fuel industries… fracking, oil sands, etc. Until we protect our source water, we will never truly have safe drinking water or land to grow food.

Feb 19, 2017
3:32 AM

yes I fully agree my water is not good and I have to buy it I cant drink it those big bottles are getting too heavy for me to be lifting all the time

Feb 17, 2017
6:15 AM

The True North strong and free! We need to listen to our elders who know how to protect our sacred land

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