A Snapshot of On-Reserve Clean Water Issues

March 02, 2018

In Canada, access to clean drinking water is considered a given. A given, I suspect, that is frequently taken for granted by those who enjoy clean drinking water at the twist of the tap. For thousands of Indigenous Peoples, clean water at the twist of tap is an elusive dream. Entire generations in some communities have grown up under various degrees of drinking water advisories (DWA). The Neskantaga First Nation, with a population of about 240, in northern Ontario has had a DWA in place since 1996. That means one full generation has grown up under a DWA and a second generation is now growing up having never turned on the tap for a glass of water.

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Did you know access to clean drinking water is a right? In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized clean drinking water and adequate sanitation as a basic human right. In 2015, those rights were reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly Human Rights to Water and Sanitation:

 

Reaffirming the definition of the rights

The proposed resolution further provides guidance to States by reaffirming the definition of the rights as adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2014 to state that they “entitle everyone, without discrimination, to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use and to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.” [1]

This clear language regarding the contents of the rights to water and sanitation is drawn from definitions set out by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

 

These are the water advisory classifications.

Boil water advisory/order: Water is fine to drink and use after it has been boiled

Do not consume advisory/order: Water cannot be consumed

Do not use advisory/order: Water cannot be used or consumed

 

There are just over 600 First Nation communities in Canada and “at any given time one in five of these communities are under a boil water advisory.” [2] Some of the advisories are short in duration, while some communities have endured long-term (over 12 months in duration) DWAs for over twenty years. 

The federal government has made a commitment to have all long-term DWAs lifted by March 2021. Announced on February 27, 2018 as part of the 2018 federal budget$2.2 billion over five years in water and wastewater treatment and waste management as part of the first phase of the Government’s 10-year green infrastructure investment plan.”

 

How is it that people on-reserve have suffered through sometimes decades of having to boil water before drinking it, bathing in it, or cooking with it while neighboring communities enjoy safe, clean water? The answer lies in the fact that there are no drinking water regulations for reserves. There are guidelines, protocols, and lots of information about how to what to do and not to do under a DWA but no regulations.

 

“For decades, the federal government did not take appropriate action to ensure residents on First Nations reserves benefited from equal protection before the law—to this day there are no drinking water regulations on reserve. It is unsurprising, then, that this disparate system of regulations has led to disparate outcomes in access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Systems have been designed, constructed, and operated on reserves without the kind of legal standards and protections that the government has adopted for all other Canadians.” [3] 

 

There was an attempt in 2013 by the Conservative government to introduce regulations. The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (SDWFNA) came into force on November 1, 2013.

 

“In response to ongoing problems with the provision of clean drinking water on reserves throughout Canada, the government prepared this law, which sets out a process for developing regulations. Hence, the SDWFNA does not specify water quality parameters, standards, or actions to improve water quality. Rather, it enables Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) and Health Canada to develop regulations dealing with drinking water and wastewater.” [4]  [emphasis added]

 

Many of the on-reserve water systems have not been updated to meet the demands of a growing population. Additional on-reserve housing units cannot be added without upgrades to the water and wastewater infrastructure. Overcrowding in on-reserve housing is common on many reserves which places extra strain on  inadequate sanitation systems.

 

Exposure to waterborne contaminants such as e. coli have health impacts that include gastrointestinal disorders, the increase risk of cancer, and recurring skin infections. Struggling under long-term DWAs leaves people frustrated, scared, and desperate, not to mention exhausted from caring for family members, young and old, in crowded, unhealthy housing. There is a social cost as well. Bathing is limited and clean laundry is a challenge.  

 

The above provides readers with a snapshot of on-reserve clean water issues. Help is on the way but it will still take time. Next time you turn on the tap for a glass of water appreciate the ease of quenching your thirst and the security of knowing that it won’t make you ill.

 

[1]  70th session of the UN General Assembly Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, November 2015

[2] Ending long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities Indigenous and Northern Affairs

[3] Make it Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End First Nations Water Crisis, Human Rigths Watch 

[4] The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act

 

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Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., provides information on this blog for free as a resource for those seeking information about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Readers looking for more detailed information, or who have questions, can sign up for our fee-for-service training. Also, ICT encourages everyone who reads this information to use their best judgment given their own circumstances, vulnerabilities, and needs, and to contact a consulting or legal professional if you have more specific questions. Join the conversation over on our Linkedin page.

Topics: Indigenous Awareness

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Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., provides information on this blog for free as a resource for those seeking information about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Readers looking for more detailed information, or who have questions, can sign up for our fee-for-service training. Also, ICT encourages everyone who reads this information to use their best judgment given their own circumstances, vulnerabilities, and needs, and to contact a consulting or legal professional if you have more specific questions. Join the conversation over on our Linkedin page.