Recently a grad student in journalism at Concordia University contacted me to ask a few questions about the state of drinking water in First Nations communities. I’d been meaning to eventually write a piece on the issue, but her shock at what she had been learning reminded me yet again that many Canadians are totally unaware of conditions that most native people are all-too familiar with.
The term ‘potable water’ is often used when discussing various water purification initiatives in other countries. I think it’s safe to say that most Canadians would feel that potable water is a settled issue in this country, and that every person living here has (and should have) clean drinking water. Unfortunately, such is not the case for thousands of indigenous people. One of Canada’s dirty secrets is just how bad the water situation is, and has been, for so many aboriginal communities.
Let us first take a look at the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines, put out by Health Canada:
Canadian drinking water supplies are generally of excellent quality. However, water in nature is never “pure.” It picks up bits and pieces of everything it comes into contact with, including minerals, silt, vegetation, fertilizers, and agricultural run-off. While most of these substances are harmless, some may pose a health risk. To address this risk, Health Canada works with the provincial and territorial governments to develop guidelines that set out the maximum acceptable concentrations of these substances in drinking water. These drinking water guidelines are designed to protect the health of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children and the elderly. The guidelines set out the basic parameters that every water system should strive to achieve in order to provide the cleanest, safest and most reliable drinking water possible.
Thus, ‘clean’ in relation to water is quantifiable. Note that while Health Canada in its federal capacity issues guidelines and procedural documents, the ultimate responsibility for water safety lies in the hands of the provincial and territorial governments. This of course makes it more difficult to get a sense of what is going on with water supplies in Canada. In addition, First Nations are a federal concern, and sometimes so are the Inuit. (The federal government has long denied responsibility for Métis, in case you were wondering.) I point this out so that you understand the following discussion is not going to be as clear, or simple, as you may have hoped.
What is a water advisory?
According to the Health Canada there are basically two types of water advisories:
- Boil Water Advisory (BWA): An advisory issued to the public when the water in a community’s water system is contaminated with faecal pollution indicator organisms (such as Escherichia coli) or when water quality is questionable due to operational deficiencies (such as inadequate chlorine residual). Under these circumstances, bringing the water to a rolling boil for at least one minute will render it safe for human consumption (Health Canada, 2008a).
- Do Not Consume Advisory: An advisory issued to the public when the water in a community’s water system contains a contaminant, such as a chemical, that cannot be removed from the water by boiling (Health Canada, 2008a).
Water advisories are not limited to First Nations. At any given time there are upwards of 1400 water advisories issued throughout Canada. Water security in this country is something that should concern everyone. Nonetheless, the severity and duration of water advisories in First Nations communities is nothing short of scandalous.
Health Canada reports that as of September 30, 2012, there were 116 First Nations communities across Canada under a Drinking Water Advisory. That is nearly 20% of all First Nations communities. This number has stayed pretty steady over the years. Between 1995 and 2007, one quarter of all of water advisories in First Nations lasted longer than a year. Sixty-five percent of these ‘long-duration’ water advisories lasted more than two years. One of the reserves I grew up by, the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation, has been on a boil water advisory since 2007.
Another aspect of this problem is the fact that some First Nations do not have running water at all, and thus are not counted when water advisories are tallied. In Manitoba alone, 10% of First Nations have no water service. Across Canada, there are 1,800 reserve homes lacking water service and 1,777 homes lacking sewage service.
Since water advisories can be lifted if conditions improve even temporarily, a community can have the same water advisory in place for an extended period of time or may experience a series of advisories without the situation truly improving much. Neskantaga First Nation, bordering the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario has been on a boil water advisory since 1995. You can read about that community as well as five others in this Polaris Institute publication, Boiling Point.
Information is hard to come by
In 2011, Global News published an interactive map showing all the water advisories in First Nations communities at that time, as well as the duration of those advisories. The article accompanying this map does an excellent job of describing the nature of water advisories.
Note that in order to create this map, Global News had to submit an Access to Information request. That is because although Health Canada does keep track of water advisories that are issued throughout Canada, it does not provide a list that is available to the public. The only way to find out if there is a water advisory in place is to track media releases or find out after the fact through Access to Information.
Or that would be the only way, if it weren’t for the Water Chronicles, which tracks water advisories across the country and publishes them in an interactive map. The Water Chronicles divides water advisories into four categories: do not consume, boil water, water shortage and cyanobacteria bloom. Why we have to count on a volunteer research group to monitor this situation on a national level for us instead of having the information consolidated on the Health Canada site, I cannot fathom.
Why is potable water out of reach for so many First Nations communities?
Hopefully right now you’re asking yourself, how is this even possible? Well, the issue has been studied intensively. In 2005, the Auditor General of Canada issued a report on drinking water in First Nations communities. Basically, here’s how it works:
- AANDC provides the funds for designing, constructing and maintaining water systems in First Nations.
- Health Canada helps monitor water quality.
- First Nations are responsible for getting the construction done and the maintenance in place.
“Aha!” you say, “so if people still don’t have clean drinking water in First Nations communities, it’s because the leaders are corrupt and stole the money and didn’t build anything properly!”
Well dear reader of the National Post or Globe and Mail, it’s not that simple at all. The Auditor General identified a number of problem areas:
- No laws and regulations governing the provision of drinking water in First Nations communities, unlike other communities.
- The design, construction, operation, and maintenance of many water systems is still deficient.
- The technical help available to First Nations to support and develop their capacity to deliver safe drinking water is fragmented.
It is AANDC who defines the construction codes and standards applicable to the design and construction of water systems in First Nations communities, and the Auditor General found that these codes and standards are extremely inconsistent and poorly followed up on. In addition, the AG found that water testing by Health Canada is also inconsistent, hampering the ability to detect problems in water quality before a crisis arises. Added to this, most of those operating water treatment plant operators in First Nations are not properly trained for their position.
What has to happen?
This is not a problem that can be solved with a one-pronged approach. More money without addressing the regulatory gap and without ensuring capacity within the communities to ensure successful and safe operation of water service facilities has not, and cannot work. Yet despite a 2007 report by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples saying basically the same thing, not enough progress has yet been made on these issues. If your question is, “what needs to happen?” then let’s review the Senate Committee’s recommendations:
That the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development provide for a professional audit of water system facilities, as well as an independent needs assessment, with First Nations representation, of both the physical assets and human resource needs of individual First Nations communities in relation to the delivery of safe drinking water prior to the March 2008 expiration of the First Nations Water Management Strategy;
That, upon completion of the independent needs assessment, the Department dedicate the necessary funds to provide for all identified resource needs of First Nations communities in relation to the delivery of safe drinking water;
That a comprehensive plan for the allocation of monies from said funds be completed by June 2008; and
That, upon completion of the comprehensive plan, the Department provide a copy to this Committee and appear before it to report on its contents.
That the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development undertake a comprehensive consultation process with First Nations communities and organizations regarding legislative options, including those set out in reports of the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water and the Assembly of First Nations, with a view to collaboratively developing such legislation.
Has any of that been done yet?
In April of 2011, Neegan Burnside provided the independent needs assessment recommended by both the Auditor General and the Senate Committee, providing us finally with a more accurate view of what the situation is and what needs exist. Almost all First Nations participated in the study (97%). AANDC provided a Fact Sheet in July of 2011, laying out the summary of the report. Since people often focus on cost, here is what the report recommended:
Having assessed the risk level of each system, the contractor identified the financial cost to meet the department’s protocols for safe water and wastewater. The total estimated cost is $1.2 billion which includes, amongst other factors, the development of better management practices, improved operator training, increasing system capacity, and the construction of new infrastructure when required.
The contractor also projected the cost, over 10 years, of ensuring that water and wastewater systems for First Nations are able to grow with First Nation communities. Including the aforementioned $1.2 billion to meet the department’s current protocols, the contractor’s projections for the cost of new servicing is $4.7 billion.
Problems with proposed legislation
Bill S-11, the Safe Water for First Nations Act was introduced in May of 2010 , but the much-awaited federal legislation recommended by the Auditor General and the Senate Committee met with criticism for not having been produced with actual consultation with First Nations.
Bill-11 was replaced in February of this year with Bill s-8. Critics of this bill point out that there is no funding formula included and call it a ‘piecemeal’ approach that does not respect Aboriginal rights. The Canadian Environmental Law Association submitted a briefing note to the Senate Committee pointing out three problem areas with the proposed legislation:
- the bill does not respect constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights
- there is no long-term vision for First Nations water resource management
- First Nations governance structures are not being respected
A legal analysis of the Bill commissioned by the Assembly of First Nations raises similar concerns (and is an excellent summary of the whole issue really).
As the Ontario Native Women’s Association points out, there is still no mechanism in place to ensure that development of regulations related to water in First Nations is a joint process, rather than merely top-down one.
This relationship has to change if things are ever going to improve
The top-down approach reflected in this proposed legislation HAS. NOT. WORKED. The water crisis in First Nations communities is not some recent development, but rather a chronic problem which was caused in great part by the failure of the federal government to bring First Nations into this process as partners.
For years Canada lacked a proper understanding of the scope of the problem, but that can no longer be used as an excuse. We now have the most comprehensive study ever done on the issue. We know where we need to go.
First Nations are working hard to develop a national strategy. Canadians and the Canadian government need to join this process. The need is pressing, and that cannot be forgotten. All Canadians need to be aware of the severity of the problem, and I would further ask that they stand with us as we ask to be consulted properly in any proposed solution.
Water security is an issue everyone living in this country faces, and access to clean drinking water has long been considered a basic human right. Guaranteeing that right is going to take a population becoming more informed on the issues and more vocal in its insistence that access to water not be sacrificed in the name of economic development. Building relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis is a vital part of developing a national strategy that works for everyone.