National Indigenous History Month: The Water Crisis Part 1

In honour of National Indigenous History month in Canada, our team will be writing a number of articles highlighting different aspects of Indigenous history. This article is part 1 of 2, and focuses on issues relating to drinking water advisories and the federal government. Part 2 will look specifically at The Six Nations of the Grand River.

Introduction

It can be argued that clean water is the most important resource on Earth. This has never been more true as climate change continues to worsen and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Canada, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, also happens to be one of the most water-rich. While access to safe, affordable, and reliable water and sanitation is simple for the majority of the country’s population, the same cannot be said for many Indigenous people. Historically, the water supplied to many reserves is contaminated, hard to access, or at-risk due to improper treatment systems. The problem is significant, with 126 drinking water advisories active in Indigenous communities in 2015. While the problem has improved in recent years for certain areas, there are still 23 short-term and 52 long-term advisories that are active to-date.

Drinking Water Advisories & Indigenous Communities

Figure 1 – Drinking Water Advisory

Drinking water advisories are put into place for many reasons. For instance, a community may issue an advisory if there are problems within the entire water system such as water line breaks, equipment failure, or poor filtration/disinfection when water is treated. Additionally, a community may issue an advisory if it does not have someone trained to run the water system or trained to test and ensure the quality of the drinking water.

If a potential concern for drinking water quality is identified, an environmental health officer employed by the Government of Canada or Indigenous stakeholders will advise the chief and council. This advice must be verbal and written, provided right away, and include the appropriate recommendations (e.g., what type of advisory must be issued).

Figure 2 – Types of Drinking Water Advisories

According to the Government of Canada website, it is the chief, council, or their delegates responsibility to issue or lift a drinking water advisory, or to take necessary actions when addressing the cause of the advisory.

Health Impacts

Contaminated water and poor sanitation are directly linked to the transmission of diseases such as:

  • Cholera
  • Diarrhoea
  • Hepatitis A
  • Typhoid
  • Polio
  • Acne
  • Giardia lamblia (“beaver fever”)
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Impetigo
  • Scabies
  • Ringworm

Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately management water and sanitation services expose individuals to potentially fatal or long-term health risks that are preventable.

Federal Violation of Human Rights

In Canada, these advisories are highly concentrated within Indigenous communities, and many persist for years, if not decades. The lack of clean, safe drinking water in these communities has been in direct violation of the United Nations established human rights to water and sanitation. In July 2010, the United Nations declared water and sanitation as a basic human right, acknowledging that they are essential to the realization of all other rights. According to the United Nations, “people are rights holders and UN member states are duty bearers of providing water and sanitation services. Rights holders can claim their rights and duty bearers must guarantee the rights to water and sanitation equally and without discrimination” (see Figure 3). Unfortunately, Canada has been unsuccessful to date at providing water and sanitation services equally and without discrimination, with the continued marginalization of its Indigenous people.

Figure 3 – Duty Bearers & Rights Holders

Federal Commitments

Before becoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau made a commitment to lifting all boil-water advisories within 5 years of coming into office. Once he was in, the Liberal government set its target for March 2021 – a target which they did not meet.

In October 2020 Trudeau stated: “Over the past years, we’ve lifted close to 100 long term boil water advisories, many of which had been in place for years and decades. This is something we have worked diligently on. It’s seen significant success over the past number of years, but always, the communities that we haven’t been able to lift those advisories on continue to struggle.” He also pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for this, causing timelines to be less certain. However, he insisted that the federal government was working  “very hard to reach our goal of lifting all long-term boil water advisories by the spring of 2021.”  What the government has failed to mention, is that while they have managed to lift over 100 drinking water advisories since 2015, 42 have popped up since the beginning of 2020. This illustrates a systemic problem that cannot be fixed quickly or easily. It requires not only adequate funding, but also proper planning and specialists.

Shortcomings

In November 2020, the auditor general published a new report, Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations, stating that Indigenous Services Canada must identify the amount of funding needed by First Nations and amend existing policy to provide sufficient funding to operate and maintain drinking water infrastructure. “Indigenous Services Canada had not amended the operations and maintenance funding formula for First Nations water systems since it was first developed 30 years ago and a salary gap contributed to problems in retaining qualified water system operators,” states the report.

Figure 4 – Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities

Then, in April 2021, Hogan held a news conference where she said she was “honestly disheartened” by the federal government’s inability to resolve the outstanding water issues by their self-imposed deadline. One of her criticisms was that Indigenous Services Canada had not amended its funding formula for operations and maintenance for First Nations water systems since it was first developed 30 years previously. This funding formula, which dates back to 1987, used to be updated on an annual basis to account for inflation, but did not keep pace with advances in technology or the actual costs of operating and maintaining infrastructure. 

Conclusion

While the federal government has definitely made progress in regards to the water crisis in Indigenous communities, there is still much more to be made. In order to provide a better idea of what has been happening in these communities due to the water crisis, Part 2 of this article will include an in-depth look at The Six Nations of Grand River and how the water crisis has impacted them historically and to-date.

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