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Reserving Water for Reserves

How Canada can end long-term water advisories for First Nations communities 

This morning, I woke up feeling quite thirsty. “Well,” I thought, “that’s an easy fix.” I got out of bed, grabbed my mug, went to the bathroom, and filled it up from the tap. My thirst was suddenly and unsurprisingly gone. That’s a process most of us don’t even think about: If we are thirsty, we drink water. Many are quick to recognize that, in some parts of the world, clean water is not immediately accessible. But in countries in the Global North like the United States and Canada, that isn’t an issue, right? Wrong. 

In Canada, many communities live under drinking water advisories, either short-term or long-term, which indicate that their water is heavily contaminated and must be boiled before consumption. However, water advisories do not affect Canada’s population equally. Rather, they are a direct manifestation of the Canadian government’s continued mistreatment and neglect of Indigenous communities. Today, there are over 100 drinking water advisories affecting First Nations across Canada; of these, 45 are considered “long-term,” or in place for over a year. Fortunately, this problem is solvable: With technologies like water treatment plants and investment in proper training of treatment-plant workers, Canada can work to end these advisories once and for all. 

In central Canada, the Ojibway of Shoal Lake 40 First Nations Reserve went 24 years under a long-term drinking water advisory. Surprisingly, this community draws its water from the same source as the city of Winnipeg, the capital of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Why, then, could Winnipeggers drink carefree from their taps while the Indigenous peoples of Shoal Lake 40 were forced to boil their water? The answer to this question demonstrates the unjust treatment of First Nations communities in Canada: The city of Winnipeg had a water treatment facility and the people of Shoal Lake 40 did not. In 2021, however, a $33 million water treatment facility was installed, and the drinking water advisory was subsequently lifted. Herein lies a simple solution to this rampant problem: Canada can ensure that none of its citizens go without clean drinking water by working with Indigenous leaders to install effective water treatment facilities on First Nations reserves. 

The key word here is “effective.” An ineffective water treatment facility notably caused the onset of the Neskantaga First Nation’s water advisory, now the longest standing in Canadian history. Since the advisory was first established in 1995, many residents have lived their entire lives without clean drinking water. The Neskantaga community, comprised of around 300 people, accesses water from the highly contaminated Lake Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario. In 1993, the Canadian government built a treatment plant to resolve the contamination issues, but the plant failed to work. Contamination in the area continues to be an issue; as recently as October 2020, the water supply needed to be completely shut off to address an “oily sheen” of unknown origins which had formed on the surface of the lake. As a result, many community members had to be evacuated to hotels. 

The initial 1993 water treatment plant failed to clean the water supply for the Neskantaga community for one key reason: Its employees lacked the proper training and ability to operate the facility. An unnamed engineer explained to the National Observer that the plant employed unqualified workers and did not provide appropriate supervision. Lieutenant Justin Gee, the Vice President of First Nations Engineering Services, added that the contractor responsible for the Neskantaga water treatment plant “cut corners every day.” The widespread unprofessionalism within this facility triggered multiple ongoing legal battles brought by members and representatives of the Neskantaga Community, as well as other Indigenous groups. 

For example, members of the Neskantaga First Nation, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, and Curve Lake First Nation communities recently brought a national class action lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada. They sought compensation for Indigenous people who have been adversely affected by a lack of drinking water, declaring that Canada has a duty to work with Indigenous communities to ensure they have access to clean water. On July 30, 2021, the government settled the suit for $8 billion, with $1.5 billion earmarked for direct compensation and $6 billion for increasing reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves. The settlement, however, still requires court approval. 

In addition to taking legal action, members of the Neskantaga community are speaking out through protest. One sign posted in the community reads, “Dear Mr. Trudeau, come live here for 2 weeks then you will know what our people face.” During the forced evacuation of the community in November 2020, 12-year-old Lyndon Sakanee joined protesters outside of the Thunder Bay Collier Project Leaders office, declaring, “We’re not animals. We’re not things. We’re human. We need our water to survive.” 

The cases of Shoal Lake 40 and the Neskantaga community together present a complete solution to these long-term drinking water advisories. As demonstrated by Shoal Lake 40, investing in water treatment facilities can secure the Indigenous population access to safe water. But the failure of the 1993 Neskantaga water treatment facility shows that constructing such plants is not enough; these facilities must also be staffed with employees who are properly trained and supervised. 

Implementing these solutions is more than possible. In Canada, provinces have jurisdiction over the water treatment and testing for their communities. First Nations communities, however, do not have the same control; it instead falls under the purview of the federal government to provide clean drinking water to these communities. It follows, then, that the federal government is responsible for carrying out these solutions. Shortly after being elected in 2015, the Trudeau government pledged to end all long-term drinking water advisories by March 2021. With 45 long-term advisories remaining and March 2021 long gone, the administration has failed to meet this pledge. Upon this failure, the government pledged an additional $1.5 million to solve the problem, though their plan of action remains vague. 

Canada is one of the world’s wealthiest and most water-rich countries, hosting 7 percent of the world’s freshwater surface supply in a country with just 0.5 percent of the global population. Nonetheless, many Indigenous people, some of Canada’s most vulnerable residents, still lack access to safe, drinkable water. On March 22, 2016, World Water Day, Trudeau announced an investment of almost $4.6 billion for infrastructure to provide clean water to First Nations communities. With the problem still seeming to persist unchecked, however, this money clearly must be spent more effectively by building working treatment facilities in these communities staffed by fully qualified workers. After Canada recognized the UN declaration on the human right to safe drinking water and basic sanitation in 2012, it would be egregious not to legislate toward this goal, too.