Water everywhere but not a drop for many First Nations

canadian lakeCanada has seven percent of the world’s renewable fresh water. Seven percent. Only the Russian Federation and Brazil (despite the extensive long-term drought around the country’s capital, Sao Paolo) beat out Canada in freshwater access.

But like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Mariner,” water may be everywhere but for thousands there is not a drop to drink – at least, not a drop to drink without being trucked in or boiled for ten minutes.

It should come as no surprise that those stuck in Canada’s freshwater limbo are First Nations, many of which are sufficiently marginalized to be considered third-world islands in the middle of a first-world nation. First Nations are 90 times more likely than other Canadians to lack access to running water.

According to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) report in October 2015, 400 out of 618 First Nations in the country were plagued by water problems between 2004 and 2014. In July and August of 2015, 116 communities faced drinking water advisories.

Some communities have spent decades such water advisories. Shoal Lake 40 in Ontario has been unable to drink their water for 17 years; Neskantaga (also in Ontario) for 20 years, thanks to a water treatment plant that broke down in 1995, two years after it was constructed. Other First Nations don’t have running water at all, relying on pit toilets and bottled water to survive.

On June 19, 2013 the Canadian Government passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act based on recommendations from the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems in 2011. In its assessment, the federal government determined that bringing First Nations water systems up to the standards of the rest of the country would require $4.7 billion dollars over ten years ($470 million per year). Since 2008 only 35% of that ($165 million per year) has been committed.

Ironically, while the government delays investment in sustainable water systems, they are pouring millions into bottled water resources for First Nations. In 2015, the feds spent over a million dollars on bottled water for the Neskantaga community alone (CBC News).

Part of the problem with water security on First Nations is the failure of the Canadian Constitution to recognize access to water as a basic human right. While the government and media are aware of the country’s failure to supply thousands with adequate drinking water, the severity of the violations and the ability to resolve them is hindered by a lack of explicit legislation guaranteeing access to clean, potable water. And apparently this failure is not just an oversight: in 2010 Canada abstained from signing an international United Nations General Assembly resolution recognizing water as a human right.

Prior to his election as Prime Minister in October 2015, liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised to end boil water advisories on First Nations within five years.  “A Canadian government led by me will address this as a top priority because it’s not right in a country like Canada,” he stated in a town hall meeting hosted by Vice magazine.

Was it a coincidence that his promise came on the same day the Neskantaga First Nation appealed for personal intervention from the next prime minister to end the community’s 20 years of water insecurity? Surely one of the most wealthy countries (ranked #21 in GDP) with one of the highest levels of freshwater in the world must see its failure to provide thousands of indigenous people with access to clean water to be a national scandal…


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