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Shutting Down Assumptions: The Cost of Clean Drinking Water

Tansi Nîtôtemtik/Negha Dagondih,


Clean drinking water. An expected right for most Canadians, and something we don’t often even think about. As Canadians, so many of us think clean drinking water is such a given in a modern country that we actually don’t think about it at all. We drink water from the tap, we go to a friend’s or family member’s place and ask for a glass of water and they get it from the tap. We sip away, replenish our thirst, and go about our day. But it is not like that for everyone. Many Indigenous peoples on reserves have gone decades without clean drinking water. Potable water, bottled water, boiling advisories, and other means of attaining the simple - yet necessary - liquid to life and health. Beyond that, not having clean water also affects washing ourselves and our clothes. Canada has turned away from these reserves and Indigenous communities, and it is clear.

Even within the Calls to Action, under the Health category, there is no mention of water; and come to think of it ‘water’ is not even mentioned once in the whole TRC document. Perhaps the closest thing to link water to a Call to Action is #18, which states:

“We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to acknowledge that the current state of Aboriginal health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools, and to recognize and implement the health-care rights of Aboriginal people as identified in international law, constitutional law, and under the Treaties.”[1]


The argument that clean water, and clean drinking water affects the state of Aboriginal health and is a result of Canadian government policies is likely right, but with such a serious issue and concern regarding something so necessary to life and livelihood, there would be an expectation that a Call to Action would have directly referenced this right for Indigenous peoples on reserves.

Canada issues three types of drinking water advisories:

  1. boil water advisories

  2. do not consume advisories

  3. do not use advisories[2]


Some of the priorities when creating clean drinking water on reserves are that proper infrastructure must be put in place, water systems must be maintained and staffed, First Nations must be supported when it comes to water delivery, and short-term advisories must not become long-term.[3] The government of Canada has stated it has invested CAD $5.2 billion towards clean drinking water for First Nations, and that money has seen 127 long-term advisories lifted with 36 remaining in 29 communities, 611 projects, 108 water treatment plants, and 503 upgrades funded, as well as 208 short-term drinking advisories kept from becoming long-term.[4] But more must be done, and it must be done by the appropriate parties.


The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was enacted in 2013, and governs the practices and operations of achieving clean drinking water on reserves and in Indigenous communities. On reserves south of the 60th parallel, the federal Government of Canada and First Nations communities deal and manage the concerns of creating safe drinking water, with responsibilities on chiefs and councils to manage the day-to-day operations of water and wastewater management.[5] Indigenous Services Canada provides funding and advice, while Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada helps protect water quality and water resources in the North; where the territorial governments are responsible for providing clean drinking water.[6] In British Columbia, things are a little different, “the First Nations Health Authority, as part of the 2013 British Columbia Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nations Health Governance, has taken on the responsibility for providing independent public health advice and guidance to BC First Nations communities and provides funding and technical support to enable effective monitoring programs for drinking water quality.”[7]



But more must be done. It is not acceptable that there are still children, families, and elders living without clean drinking water and water to clean themselves and clean their clothes. This frustration was recognized by the Federal Court of Canada (FCA) which ordered a multi-billion dollar (at least $6 billion) settlement requiring the government to take speedier action to clean up contaminated water on First Nations reserves and to compensate them for the years they have had inaccessible safe water.[8]


In March 2021, a deadline set by Prime Minister Trudeau was missed, and the 1977 promise to have Indigenous peoples enjoy clean water like many Canadians was still not met, and “just a month before that deadline, a government audit found that Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water,” adding that almost half of the existing advisories had been in place for more than a decade.”[9]


“I know that there are families in our community who can’t bathe their children or won’t bathe their children in the water,” - Whetung [chief of Curve Lake First Nation].[10] And it doesn’t stop there. People argue that Indigenous people can just move, or simply buy bottled water. But what cost must Indigenous peoples pay to live on their ancestral lands and to just get by in a system they didn’t ask for? Contaminated and unsafe water contributes to many other problems. “In a 2016 review of 16 studies published between 2000 and 2015, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan found several health concerns with respect to poor drinking water in First Nations across the country. According to the review, gastrointestinal illnesses, skin problems and birth defects were reported as some of the most common ailments.”[11]


The settlement reached in the FCA could result in compensation for 142,000 individuals from 258 First Nations, and 120 First Nations; and that’s a good thing.[12] Hopefully this sets a precedent, and sends a message, for the Government of Canada, territorial and provincial governments, and chiefs and councils across the country that they all are part of the solution to achieve clean drinking water.


While there is no specific Call to Action on water, maybe this post can be our call to action to hold all levels of leadership accountable.


Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Calls to Action”, (2015) at 3, online (pdf): Government of B.C. <www2.gov.bc.ca> https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/british-columbians-our-governments/indigenous-people/aboriginal-peoples-documents/calls_to_action_english2.pdf


[2] Indigenous Services Canada, “Water in First Nations Communities”, (Dec. 2021), online: Government of Canada <sac-isc-gc.ca> https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1100100034879/1521124927588


[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Vjosa Isai, “Canada to Pay Billions to Indigenous Groups for Tainted Drinking Water”, (Jan. 5, 2022), online: <nytimes.com> https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/23/world/canada/indigenous-water-lawsuit.html


[9] Ibid.


[10] Daina Goldfinger, “‘An ongoing symbol of colonization’: How bad water affects First Nations’ health”, (Oct. 6, 2021), online: <globalnews.ca> https://globalnews.ca/news/8199988/first-nations-water-crisis-health-effects/


[11] Ibid.


[12] Olivia Stefanovich, Richard Raycraft, “First Nations and Ottawa agree to $8-billion settlement on drinking water advisories”, (July 31, 2021), online: <cbc.ca> https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/drinking-water-class-action-proposed-settlement-1.6123251

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