Curve Lake First Nation, a forested community in southern Canada, is surrounded on three sides by fresh water.
But for decades, residents have been unable to use it safely. The community, concerned about dilapidated infrastructure and waterborne diseases, relies on shipments of bottled water. The newly elected 34-year-old head of the community has lived her entire life without the guarantee of clean water flowing from the tap.
“The emotional and spiritual damage of not having clean water, having to look at all the water around us on a daily basis and not being able to use it, is almost immeasurable,” said Chief Emily Whetung.
Amid growing frustration, Whetung and other indigenous leaders have launched national class action lawsuits against the federal government. Arguing that the federal government failed to provide clean water and forced communities to live in a way “consistent with life in developing countries,” they are suing the government for damages of C $ 2.1 billion (US $ 1.7 billion), the costs associated with years of trucked bottled water. and a community-wide water treatment system.
Despite being one of the most water-rich nations in the world, for generations Canada has been unwilling to guarantee access to safe drinking water for indigenous peoples. Water in dozens of communities has been deemed unsafe to drink for at least a year, and the government admits it has failed.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau, who was campaigning for the nation’s top job at the time, made an ambitious promise to end the scourge of contaminated water in more than 100 First Nations communities across the country. But today, the federal minister overseeing the issue acknowledges that the government missed its March deadline on its own five-year promise, and says it has “no credible excuses” for how communities that have gone decades without clean water they still lack access.
“It is unacceptable in a country that is financially one of the richest in the world and rich in water, and the reality is that many communities do not have access to clean water,” Federal Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller told the Guardian. In an interview.
Access to clean water is something few Canadians have to think twice about. But Canada’s vast geography and the disparate locations of 630 First Nations communities, some only accessible by plane, make installing water treatment infrastructure a logistical challenge.
As a result of colonial-era laws, indigenous communities have been prohibited from financing and managing their own water treatment systems, and the federal government has a responsibility to fix the problems.
“If you are anywhere else in Canada and you turn on the tap, then you are protected by drinking water regulations,” said Amanda Klasing, a water researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If you live in reserve, there are no such regulations. There are no protections for drinking water. “
Certain communities, like Curve Lake, have problems with E coli in the water. Others, like the Grassy Narrows, struggle with a legacy of toxic heavy metals, a remnant of negligent industry. In some cases, the water is contaminated by naturally occurring parasites and bacteria. In others, reactions between organic material and chemicals used to purify the water can create undrinkable water.
Consequently, the government issues advisories warning against the use of water, and some have been in effect for decades. The community of Neskantaga in Northern Ontario, has been under a water advisory since 1995, the researchers found, despite having a water treatment plant. In Manitoba, the Shoal Lake 40 water advisory has been in effect since 1997. Plans for a water treatment plant were scrapped in 2011 after the federal government objected to the cost of the project.
In those communities, children have sores and skin conditions such as eczema. Others struggle with gastrointestinal disorders.
For Whetung, Curve Lake’s battle for clean water encapsulates the struggles of many First Nations communities.
When the Curve Lake water treatment plant was built in 1983, it was intended to serve a population of just 56 people and had a useful life of 20 years. Despite rapidly outstripping the plant’s capacity, decades of red tape have stalled the community’s ability to upgrade its infrastructure. As a result, the community has dealt with multiple drinking water advisories over the years, including a recent boil water ad that lasted for nearly two years.
An inspection of the plant by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment found a filter that was not removing pathogens and the UV treatment was not working poorly. While the ministry determined that the community urgently needed a new plant, there was nothing the province could do: the plant was the responsibility of the federal government, which deemed the risk to be lower. The federal government approved design plans for a new facility, but construction is still years away.
Until that plant is built, shipments of bottled water will continue.
“Water is life,” said Whetung. “It is what we grow our children into when they are in the womb. And we can’t use anything we have access to. ”
Since taking office for the first time, the Trudeau government has made significant progress on the issue, investing more than 2 billion Canadian dollars. In 2016, there were 105 communities with long-term drinking water advisories, meaning the water had not been safe to use or consume for at least a year. At the end of April, that number has been reduced to 52 notices in 33 communities.
The federal government says the figure remains high due to delays stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, and has pledged another C $ 1.5 billion in funding.
But a scathing report Canada’s auditor general in late February found that the federal government had not invested enough resources in the task and that much of the work was behind schedule even before the pandemic hit.
“I am very concerned and honestly discouraged that this long-standing issue has yet to be resolved,” Auditor General Karen Hogan told reporters, warning that it would be years before warnings from some communities are removed. “Access to clean water is a basic human need. I don’t think anyone would say that this is by no means an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021. “
The auditor also found that several of the drinking water advisories that the government removed were the result of interim measures rather than long-term updates.
And the crisis may be deeper. Experts caution that federal monitoring does not include wells, despite the fact that 20% of First Nations communities depend on them to supply water to most households. Neither does the government track waterborne diseases in First Nations communities, or potential deaths that could be related to water quality.
“It seems incredible that there are communities that have been dealing with drinking water advisories for more than two decades,” said Charles Hume, a First Nations elder from Champagne and Aishihik. “They don’t look at us the same way … we’re actually the last on the totem pole.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism