Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink: Broken Promises and Boil-Water Advisories

Access to clean drinking water is something many of us take for granted, especially in a country as water-wealthy as Canada. And yet, Indigenous communities across the nation are still facing water advisories, disease, and contamination from their water supply. As of January 2022, 29 Indigenous communities still endure long-term water advisories. The lack of drinkable water is emblematic of Canada’s failure to deliver even the most basic of services to Indigenous Peoples, and the dogged pursuit of its colonial policies. 

And let’s be clear about what a drinking water advisory means:  water that runs from the tap is unsafe to drink, and in some cases it can cause rashes on people’s skin if they bathe in it.  It means the water needed to sustain life is actually harmful.  

Historically in Canada, access to clean drinking water in Indigenous communities was not a priority for the Canadian government. For example, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation recently ended a 24-year boil water advisory that can be traced back 100 years to when the community was cut off from its source of clean drinking water by the very same aqueduct that supplies safe drinking water to the city of Winnipeg.

How is it that a decision made 100 years ago still affects access to clean drinking water in communities today? Why are Indigenous communities still struggling for this basic human right?

Negligent industry practises continue to pollute waterways and soil, primarily impacting Indigenous communities. 

Projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, mining, and the construction of dams continue to pose a risk to clean drinking water. On top of that, out-dated colonial laws make it difficult for these communities to access funding or to manage their own water supply. Here are a few examples of how industrial contamination and chronic underfunding from the government continue to put Indigenous communities at risk:

Kitigan Zibi in Quebec has been under a do not consume order for over 17 years because of uranium contamination. Beaver Lake Cree Nation has to truck in their drinking water. Grassy Narrows spent decades dealing with mercury poisoning due to the Dryden pulp mill ​​polluting the English-Wabigoon river system for hundreds of kilometres. Neskantaga Nation has been under a boil water advisory since February 1, 1995 – 27 years.

In December 2020, the Semiahmoo First Nation, which is a five minute drive from the city of White Rock and less than an hour outside of Vancouver, ended a 16-year advisory, which persisted because of underfunding, privatised water, and conflict with the White Rock municipality.

Broken Promises

Justin Trudeau made election promises in 2015 to end all boil water advisories in Indigenous communities, but the legacy of unsafe water is strong, and now seven years later and into his second term reaching this goal seems impossibly far away. While long-term advisories are being lifted, new ones are added each year

In addition, after advisories are lifted, there are long-term impacts from decades-long efforts to supply communities with potable water. Lhoosk’uz Dené First Nation, which is celebrating getting clean tap water after 20 years, had to truck in water on an almost weekly basis. While the cost was immense, the plastic pollution from two decades of drinking bottled water is just as costly. Neskantaga is also asking the Canadian government to help them clean up the plastic water bottles piled high in their community after 27 years (and counting) of having to fly in water. Bafflingly, unlike what happens in millions of stores across Canada on a daily basis, Neskantaga wasn’t able to exchange empty bottles for full ones.

The issue of clean drinking water is not simply a technical problem, but also one that is a product of environmental racism. For instance, clean drinking water was provided to industry in remote areas such as De Beers’ Victor Diamond Mine on Attawapiskat River, 300 km from Neskantaga, where the longest boil water advisory in Canada is in place. Why was it so simple to provide access to clean water for workers at the mine, but not to Indigenous communities? 

What is the solution to getting clean drinking water to Indigenous communities? 

Well, we need to address the problem of industrial contamination that causes dirty water in the first place. Canada wants to do public private partnerships (P3) so industry would be responsible for providing clean drinking water. But, P3s are costly, and are an ineffective solution to getting First Nations communities more control of their water supply. Communities need funding along with training so that maintenance on facilities can be done without relying on labour from outside the community, which is costly and slow.

Communities such as Tsleil-Waututh, Coldwater and Secwepemc are continuously on the frontlines protecting clean water. Just recently Coldwater Nation was involved in a legal challenge involving the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project. The project would put their aquifer at risk of contamination – their main source of drinking water. The Nation’s legal challenge led to a special condition being included in the project’s Environmental Certificate. Based on that, Chief Spahan and Coldwater Council eventually negotiated with TMX a route that completely bypasses the aquifer and achieves their most important goal – protection of the community’s drinking water, salmon-bearing creeks and rivers, and the sacred sites associated with them. This is a hard-won achievement for Coldwater Nation after years of costly litigation.  

Grassy Narrows has also challenged the government on mercury contamination of their water sources for many years. Just recently the Nation received funding to build a mercury care home in their community. The community also recently had its boil water advisory lifted after years of sounding the alarm to Canada, but now risks further contamination because of mining in their territory. 

RAVEN has backed some of these challenges. It is important that we continue to stand with these communities and hold Canada accountable for its legacy of environmental racism.  The history of settler colonialism runs 150 years deep – promises to provide taps that gush forth tasty, safe drinking water need more than lip-service to keep them from being a pipe-dream in Indigenous communities.

(feature photo: August 14, 2019. Nora Sneaky on the banks of the Wabigoon River by Allan Lissner)

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