No Safe Drinking Water for 25 Years

I’ve had the privilege of spending time with the Neyaashiinigmiing and the Moose Cree First Nations here in Ontario. I’ll always remember their hospitality and rich traditions. Still, the experiences leave me with mixed feelings.

I’m concerned about the living conditions I see imposed on indigenous people in Canada. The First Nations I mentioned are relatively affluent compared to some of the more remote reserves. Compared to their surrounding communities, though, it’s pretty clear that the Canadian government has treated them as second class citizens.

I mention this because of a story that broke this week in Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. The Neskatanga First Nation, on Attawapiskat Lake in Northern Ontario, hasn’t had safe drinking water in its taps for 25 years. As readers would expect, this is the longest time any community has gone without safe drinking water in Canada’s history. The government put in a water filtration system in the early 1990s. It never worked properly, and health authorities ended up imposing the boil-water advisory in 1995. The same ban is still in place today.

Believe it or not, conditions have now gotten worse. Both the primary and backup pumps broke down a week ago. This leaves many homes without running water, while others manage with an unsafe trickle. Schools are shut down, and the tiny community has evacuated more than 200 people to Thunder Bay, 450 kilometres away.

A crew flew in and installed a new pump on Tuesday. The earliest that residents can expect to return is Saturday. The band council estimates that the evacuation will cost up to half a million dollars. The government has promised a permanent solution by mid-October. Residents are skeptical that the new system will be safe. The advisory has gone on for so long that many adults on the reserve have never drunk tap water in their lives. It will take time to rebuild trust.

Chief Chris Moonias said, “this continued water crisis goes beyond boiling contaminated water—the bigger issue is that peoples’ basic fundamental human rights are being contravened and continually ignored. It’s unbelievable that Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, continues to condone this kind of injustice on our vulnerable—children and Elders especially.” Former chief Peter Moonias added, “it’s the biggest human rights issue here, even though it’s not usually considered a human rights issue. Everyone else in Canada has water, and we don’t.”

The crisis in Neskatanga is not unique. It’s a slightly more severe case of what’s been going on all over Canada for decades. In 2016, 105 First Nations were under drinking water advisories. To its credit, the government has allocated $2.5 billion to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations. They have already reduced the number to 56. They plan to end all bans by March 2021.

Since they’ve been neglected for so long, these are big projects. They can take 3-4 years to get done. Engineers have to design new systems. Projects usually involve making permanent repairs to infrastructure. Sometimes they call for building new physical plant from scratch.

Critics concede that 87 long-term advisories have been lifted at First Nations. At the same time, they point out that 39 new bans have been imposed. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the capital budget is at least 30 percent too low. The PBO puts the operating cost at $360 million a year. The approved budget is only half that much.

The trouble continues to be that we can’t fix infrastructure with half measures. These problems need to be solved once and for all. Then, the new systems have to be maintained, which means money for repairs and trained staff. This issue isn’t going to go away until permanent, long term solutions are in place and managed. Experts are skeptical that the March 2021 deadline will be met or that the systems will last.

We tend to think of human rights as things like free speech and the right to a fair trial. We should realize that they also include social and economic rights. The United Nations Resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

Canada has a long tradition of supporting human freedoms. Canadian lawyer John Humphrey wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to equal benefits for all Canadians and protects aboriginal rights under the law. Yet, many of our First Nations people live in squalor.

We need to get to the bottom of why this keeps happening. It’s time to solve the problem once and for all.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
State of Emergency in Neskantaga First Nation – Water Pump Failure
In the Neskantaga First Nation, undrinkable water is a crisis of health and faithChief evacuates nearly entire Neskantaga First Nation due to water crisis
Returning lands and resources to First Nations would go a long way to ensuring that First Nations have sustainable governments – and clean water
Ending long-term drinking water advisories


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