Indigenous Rights Debated While First Nations Lack Safe Water

Indigenous rights were the subject of new legislation in Canada’s parliament. Discover why practical steps to provide safe drinking water mean more to Canada’s First Nations communities.

I’m going to start this story with an acknowledgement. As I’m sitting writing this, I’m on the traditional Anishnabek, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Ojibway/Chippewa territory as recognized by the Upper Canada Treaties and the Haldimand Treaty.

I’m in the same place I always am when I write for Dare to Know. The only difference is that I’m taking the time to follow the Indigenous tradition of recognizing whose territory I’m on when I start talking. 

No matter where you find yourself in Canada, you’re on the traditional territory of indigenous peoples. Yet, most of us whose families have settled here don’t give that any thought.

Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The United Nations enacted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) 13 years ago. Our government loves to talk about Truth and Reconciliation and aboriginal treaty rights in Canada. Yet, it’s been avoiding signing onto UNDRIP.

We’re finally seeing some steps to address that. Canada’s Justice Minister, David Lamettie, introduced Bill C-15 last December. The Canadian government promises the bill “will affirm the Declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law and provide a framework for the Government of Canada’s implementation of the Declaration.”

Since a minority government under Justin Trudeau leads the present parliament, Bill C-15 isn’t guaranteed to pass. Even so, the NDP and the Green Party will probably vote with the Liberals, which should be enough to push it into law.

Goal is to Support Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Self-Determination

We hear that Bill C-15’s goal is to support Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. This support is meant to improve economic, social and health conditions for Canada’s most marginalized population.

Our government also insists that finally getting with the program on UNDRIP will lead all Canadians to work as partners toward a brighter future. The words and the goals behind them sound lofty and impressive.

In the real world outside Parliament Hill, things look very different. At least that’s what Canada’s Auditor General, Karen Hogan had to say in her report this week.

Issue of Clean Drinking Water in First Nations Communities

We’ve written in these pages before about the issue of clean drinking water in First Nations communities. We talked about the Globe and Mail’s expose of conditions at the Neskatanga First Nation on Attawapiskat Lake in Northern Ontario.

As we discussed in that story, Neskatanga hasn’t had safe drinking water running in its taps for twenty-five years. Since we ran that post, Neskatanga has been evacuated twice. The waterworks have been upgraded, yet they still live under a boil water advisory.

We mentioned at that time that Neskatanga wasn’t alone in dealing with this problem. The Auditor-General confirmed that yet again today.

Half of the Advisories More than 10 Years Old

Ms. Hogan’s report tells us that in 2020, 60 First Nations communities across Canada were still living under drinking water advisories. Almost half of these advisories were more than ten years old.

This isn’t the first audit report to raise this concern. First Nations have been living without potable water for decades. 

To quote the report directly, “We previously reported on this issue in 2005 and again in 2011 and provided recommendations to help resolve this issue. Fifteen years after we first examined the issue, some First Nations communities continue to experience a lack of access to safe drinking water.”

The US News and World Report ranked Canada’s quality of life the best in the entire world four years in a row. Yet, in dozens of Canadian Indigenous communities, it’s not safe to drink water from the tap.

Couldn’t Keep Promise to End Water Advisories by March

The same month that Minister Lamettie was aligning with UNDRIP, Indigenous Services Canada sheepishly admitted that it couldn’t keep its promise to end all water advisories by the end of March.

Many things were delayed by the pandemic in 2020. Yet, that’s not what the problem was here, according to the Auditor-General.

Like most things that audits reveal, the issue is money. The way the federal government funds public water systems is out of date.

Law Doesn’t Give Indigenous Communities the Same Protections

The department was working on the water issues with First Nations. Yet, Canadian law doesn’t give the same drinking water protections to Indigenous communities that it does to everybody else.

Ms. Hogan summarized her findings this way, “Indigenous Services Canada must work in partnership with First Nations to develop and implement a lasting solution for safe drinking water in First Nations communities, to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories and prevent new ones from occurring.”

The audit report’s conclusion couldn’t be more damning. “Overall, Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. Drinking water advisories remained a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.”

“Safe Drinking Water – A Basic Human Necessity”

The audit also didn’t paint a very rosy picture of future prospects. “Implementing sustainable solutions requires continued partnership between the department and First Nations,” the report found. “Until these solutions are implemented, First Nations communities will continue to experience challenges in accessing safe drinking water—a basic human necessity.”

 My grandmother taught me that “people more attention pay, to what you do than what you say.” Declarations are all well and good, but practical actions on the ground make the difference.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

Maybe the problem is that these “small places” aren’t so close to home for most Canadians. Remote First Nations communities stay “out of sight, out of mind” and that the rest of us seem to prefer it that way.

That’s not an excuse, of course. Those who live in indigenous communities are as much a part of our common humanity as anybody else. We don’t need to pass a high-minded declaration to prove that people deserve decent water in a country like Canada.

The Auditor-General concluded by saying, ““Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don’t believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Many First Nations communities still without reliable access to safe drinking water
Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities—Indigenous Services Canada
No Safe Drinking Water for 25 Years
Human Rights Call to Action from UN Chief
Canada’s Genocide


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