Ottawa must act to end First Nations water crisis identified in Human Rights Watch report

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – A leading human rights group has released a report urging Ottawa to clean up water systems on 85 First Nations reserves. The Liberal government should heed the call immediately.
June 7, 2016.   Editorial

In a nation as rich as ours, one that contains 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, no one should have to fear what flows through their tap.

Yet a damning new report by a leading U.S.-based human rights group concludes that many First Nations communities across Ontario are being deprived of their right to clean water.

As of January 2016, drinking water advisories were in effect in 85 reserves across Canada, most of them in this province. More startling, roughly 36 per cent of those advisories had been in place for 10 years or more — some for more than 20.

That means in some communities a generation has grown up not knowing what it’s like to drink from a tap or even shower without worrying about E. coli or the various other poisons Human Rights Watch discovered in the reserves’ untreated water.

“[T]he Canadian government has violated a range of international human rights obligations toward First Nations persons and communities by failing to remedy the severe water crisis,” the report concludes. Ottawa should be ashamed.

The record of government failure on this issue is long and ugly. Despite billions spent over the past few decades on water treatment facilities in First Nations communities, the problem has scarcely improved.

As the report details, that’s largely because past investments were erratic and arbitrarily allocated, often failing to take into account the particular sociological and economic realities of the reserves in question.

The Harper government preferred to ignore the issue altogether. Over the last five years, the department now known as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada returned more than $1 billion to the Treasury Board, deeming the money “surplus.” Surely some of those funds might have been well spent trying to secure non-poisonous drinking water for the thousands of First Nations people who, for years, have been forced to boil before they drink.

The current situation is devastating for both the health and spiritual well-being of those living in these communities.

One woman from Grassy Narrows First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, identified in the report as Debora C, says the tap water in her home caused her 9-year-old son to acquire a debilitating skin disease that resists most antibiotics. She’s had to resort to sponge-bathing him with costly bottled water. Others from the community described travelling the 500 kilometres to Thunder Bay just to take a bath.

Grassy Narrows, of course, was in the news last week for a separate water crisis — the pollution of its sacred waterways and poisoning of its food supply by industrial mercury seepage. In that, too, Ottawa and Queen’s Park are complicit. These governments promise a new, more respectful relationship with indigenous peoples. But how much are communities like Grassy Narrows expected to endure in the meantime?

Thankfully, on the drinking-water issue, the new federal government has indicated a willingness to act. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in March that Ottawa would invest $4.6 billion in infrastructure in aboriginal communities over the next five years, including for water and waste-water systems.

In implementing this welcome measure, Trudeau should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of governments past. The Human Rights Watch report warns that new investments won’t be effective unless accompanied by enforceable regulations, as well as mechanisms to track progress. That’s how off-reserve water systems are kept safe. There’s no reason the same precautions shouldn’t apply in these communities.

The Human Rights Watch report is a blot on our international reputation. Ours is a country too rich in money and water to accept the reality it describes.

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3 Comments

  1. It is shocking that in 2016 there are over 85 reported communities without access to clean water. As highlighted in the article, a lot of these First Nations communities have had drinking advisories on their water for well over a decade, and as stated, many individuals will travel up to 500km just to take a bath in Ontario. This problem has been exacerbated due to the fact that as mentioned, it has largely been ignored by the previous conservative government and a large amount of funding has been poorly allocated. Although the liberal government plans on investing up to $4.6 billion on infrastructure in those communities in the next five years, the concern highlighted above is that alike the previous government before, the money will also be poorly allocated and therefore possibly returned like before. Investing money is clearly needed, however money that is not wisely invested or allocated will only result in higher costs over a longer term. An example of this can be seen with some of the investments made surrounding the housing crisis in Northern Canada, where they have built expensive southern Ontario styled buildings in remote northern communities that are essentially impractical for that style of living (where hunting and fishing are means of survival, it has been a huge issue with plumbing and etc due to the draining of animal blood). The result has been that the investments of money are not culturally appropriate or relevant to the population for which it is supposed to support and therefore the “solutions” have only altered the problem and not alleviated them. Therefore in my opinion the way to create effective and positive change surrounding this issue is by spending money on culturally relevant and significant research in order to effectively spend money on infrastructure.

  2. Canada has a long history of systemically denying Indigenous peoples access to basic human rights, and water, as outlined in this article, is just one of them. It is shocking to think that in a country with a strong economy, rich in resources, and which claims to be multiculturally accepting, cannot provide safe and clean drinking water to its First Nations community. A 2016 report by a human rights group identifies 85 reserves that have drinking water advisories in effect, some of which have been in place for between ten and twenty years. This is unacceptable. Not only does this reinforce the emotions felt by the Aboriginal community of hopelessness and dishonesty by their government, unsafe water also leads to the continuing physical and mental health crisis on Canadian reserves. An example given in the article is of a 9 year old First Nations boy who contracted a debilitating skin disease from the affected water. The federal government has too long broken their promises to the Indigenous people. As mentioned in the article, the government has invested billions over the last few years in improving water treatment facilities on reserves, however, they have failed to implement mechanisms which track progress of the improvements. The Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada department under the Harper government over the previous five years have also given one billion dollars back to the government as “surplus”. Because the crisis is still relevant, it is obvious that these funds could have indeed went to further reassuring the safety and security of First Nations people, not to mention fund other needed services deemed basic rights in Canada, such as educational facilities for children who continue to be educated in inadequate, portable buildings. Our federal government should aim to be proactive rather than reactive, because waiting until a mess happens to clean it up leads to a continuation of short term solutions. Hopefully the Trudeau government can reshape the relationship between Indigenous reserves and parliament by investing into their safety on a full-time basis.

  3. Canada has a long standing reputation of violating the rights of Indigenous peoples, including children. According to Charlie Angus “Children of the Broken Treaty” 2015 The government of Canada has been violating the rights of Canadian Indigenous children since the time it started governing them. Many Indigenous First Nations communities children have been denied access not to only clean water, but also housing, education, and funding (Angus, 2015). The colonial attitudes of government and policy makers is shameful to say the least. Funding for water treatment, education, housing, and infrastructure in First Nations communities should be the held to the same standards, regulation, and maintenance as any other community. First Nations children should not suffer due to colonial policy makers and excuses over budgets. Children’s right to clean water, education, housing, and equal funding is not a right that should be able to be stripped away by anyone; certainly not the Canadian government that has made promises to ensure the equality and safety of First Nations communities through Treaties, policies, and mandates.

    Works Cited
    Angus, Charlie (2015). Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s lost promise and one girl’s dream. Regina: University of Regina Press.

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