Tip of the iceberg: The true state of drinking water advisories in First Nations

By Kerry Black (University of Calgary)
The Conversation

Indigenous Services Canada has announced it won’t end long-term advisories until 2023 at the earliest. In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to ending all long-term drinking water advisories by March 2021. When that deadline passed, the government recommitted to ending long-term advisories without a target date.

This announcement comes as no surprise to many First Nations outraged by the lack of progress on ending drinking water advisories in their communities, and the growing divide and gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Examples of First Nations across Canada enduring persistent drinking water issues are endless. Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario has been on a long-term boil water advisory since 1995. Semiahmoo First Nation recently had a 16-year boil water advisory lifted, after connecting to the nearby Metro Vancouver water line through the city of Surrey, B.C. The community is only a five-minute drive from the city of White Rock.

Internationally, the right to water is recognized by the United Nations. It entitles everyone, without discrimination, access to safe, sufficient, physically accessible and affordable water. In Canada, while our water quality is ranked among the best in the world, First Nations across the country struggle to access a safe supply.

That’s why the government’s announcement wasn’t surprising to those of us who have been following this issue for years. The true crisis is much greater than what is conveyed in the media, and there’s a lack of awareness about how water is managed in First Nation communities.

Despite providing the land that supplies water to the largest city in Manitoba, the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation lacks adequate water infrastructure of its own. The band has had to bring in bottled water for more than 18 years. Photo: Council of Canadians

Small systems not under federal jurisdiction

While the federal government is responsible for funding and overseeing water management in First Nations, this does not typically include small systems and individual wells and cisterns. And provincial governments and municipalities have no jurisdiction over water management on reserve.

In addition, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was enacted despite criticism from First Nations.

First Nations face disproportionately higher numbers of drinking water advisories, and are subjected to these advisories for longer periods of time than non-Indigenous people. This is due to inadequate and chronic under-funding, regulatory voids and a lack of resources to support water management. The number of water-borne diseases in First Nations communities is 26 times higher than the national average, and people living on reserve are 90 times more likely to have no access to running water compared to non-Indigenous people in Canada.

At any given moment, there are more than 100 drinking water advisories in place for First Nations across Canada, according to the federal government, the First Nations Health Authority and Saskatoon Tribal Council. But this figure doesn’t come close to revealing the real crisis. It is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The pervasiveness of the drinking water crisis is slowly stifling and oppressing First Nations across Canada.

Still no access

It’s been 10 years since the federal government’s National Assessment on Water and Wastewater Systems in First Nations Communities highlighted the state of water for First Nations people.

The government report estimated that 13.5 per cent of First Nations had trucked-in water, 13 per cent had individual wells and 1.5 per cent had no water service at all. Since the Liberal government announced in 2015 its intention to eliminate long-term drinking water advisories, attention has been placed on federally funded drinking water systems, which are larger community systems.

But many communities, like those in the Prairies or more remote locations, have hundreds of advisories in place for individual wells or cisterns that fail to meet Canadian Drinking Water guidelines. These systems are not well-funded or closely monitored.

In many of these First Nations, water has elevated levels of heavy metals, including iron and manganeseand contaminants like E. coli. Residents don’t trust the drinking water and there is a preference to rely on bottled water as a reliable drinking water source. Even Nations near urban centres, like Tsuut’ina Nation just outside of Calgary, struggle to trust the water from their wells.