Imagine being unable to wash dishes, have a bath or a drink straight from the tap. This idea seems absurd as most of us use water from our taps every day without worry. In Canada, many communities have sufficient infrastructure and testing in place to ensure the water is safe. However, simply turning on the tap in many Indigenous communities across the country is dangerous.
Why Indigenous communities?
Inadequate infrastructure, limited federal funding and a history of discriminatory policies are to blame for the water insecurity in these communities. One piece of legislation that contributed (still contributes-despite amendments) to this crisis was the 1876 Indian Act. This act gave the Canadian government significant control over the Indigenous Peoples livelihoods . Additionally, this act moved many First Nations (a type of Indigenous group) to reserves—a tract of land set aside by the Federal government- often in remote locations . These remote locations were not ideal for extracting resources and building healthy, thriving communities .
The Canadian Government’s failings
Since 1977, Canada’s Federal government has failed to improve these reserves’ water conditions . They have not upheld articles outlined in either the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or International Human Rights Law. They also continue to neglect their obligation to the sixth sustainable development goal of promoting clean water and sanitation for all .
What is a Water Advisory?
The Government of Canada’s website outlines the three types of water advisories often used in First Nations communities :
- Boil Water Advisory-community members need to boil their tap water for a least one minute before consumption or bathing their children.
- Do Not Consume: community members cannot drink the tap water even if boiled and cannot bathe their children or the elderly. The website notes that adults can still bathe.
- Do Not Use: community members CANNOT use the tap water for any reason.
Water advisories are a “temporary measure to protect public health;” however, the average length in First Nations communities is 343 days .
The oldest Advisory
In northern Ontario, there is a small Oji-Cree community known as the Neskantaga First Nation. In 1991, with funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, a water system was built; however, it was insufficient . Less than four years after its construction, the community went under a boil water advisory . This advisory is the oldest in Canada, now in its 25th year .
The cost of the Federal government’s delayed intervention is a decline in both the physical and spiritual health of these communities. Water for many Indigenous Peoples is sacred as it contains spiritual aspects that promote healing. This vital relationship remains fractured with these deteriorating water systems in place. In 2011, an estimated 39% of First Nations used ‘high risk’ water systems that had “major deficiencies and pose[d] a high risk to the quality of water and to human health” .
Beginning to invest
In 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau proposed a $1.8 billion investment to improve water and wastewater infrastructure and lift the long-term boil water advisories over the next five years . This investment is a start but does not account for short- or medium-term advisories . As of December 1, 2020, 59 long-term water advisories are still in effect, with new advisories recently added in September and October 2020 .
A big announcement…
On December 2, 2020, the Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller announced $1.5 billion in additional funding to lift long-term water advisories . The funding is for three main areas:
- $616.3 million will focus on training and retention of water treatment staff
- $553.4 million will focus on prevention
- $309.8 million will help compensate for project delays due to the pandemic
Will conditions change?
This additional funding is an important step; however, the question remains, will these communities see tangible results? Will the Neskantaga First Nation, after 25 years, finally be able to drink water from their taps? The Canadian government’s continued failure to provide safe drinking water and sanitation for these Indigenous communities remains incomprehensible. Although these investments suggest they are working towards protecting these Indigenous communities’ fundamental human right to safe water, it is hard to believe it will become a reality. Overall, the solution here is simple; Canada needs to step up regardless of the cost to fix the mess they created.