A young boy rides his bike around his neighbourhood on an Indigenous reserve. Photo by Michael Swan

Lack of safe drinking water on reserves ‘disgraceful’, Canadian bishops say

  • October 19, 2018

OTTAWA – The latest statement about drinking water from Canada’s bishops “might shock” some people, admits Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver.

But if it results in action, especially in First Nations communities, then it has done its job.

“When we talk about our own Canadian backyard, we find in many remote areas, there is a problem,” Miller said following the release Oct. 9 of the “Statement on the Right to Safe Drinking Water” from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). “We’re not used to thinking of Canada as having a drinking water problem.”

The document highlights the “disgraceful” state of affairs in Indigenous communities facing unsafe water advisories. It points out that about 130 First Nations communities “are under a drinking water advisory, meaning that their tap water must be boiled, or cannot be consumed at all.”

“It’s a good thing it’s come out in the open,” said Miller, a member of the CCCB’s Justice and Peace Commission. “Until we worked on this document, I hadn’t really thought too much about unsafe drinking water in Canada. I thought about conserving water. I never dreamt there was any place in Canada where I couldn’t drink the water that was coming out of a tap, that was like the Third World 40 years ago.”

The CCCB statement points out that one of the reasons for lack of clean water on reserves is a treatment system that’s not properly maintained or cannot meet the required capacity. “In other First Nations communities, toxic chemicals in the water supply, such as uranium, have made the water unusable,” it said.

“And in some communities, such as Shoal Lake First Nation, there simply is no treatment plant and residents must haul drinking water by themselves. This state of affairs is disgraceful in a country like Canada.”

While the Canadian government has committed to ending long-term First Nations drinking water advisories by 2021, “continued vigilance will be needed to make this a reality,” said the statement.

“It’s a simple little document,” Miller said. “I think it reminds us. It shames Canadians a bit, calls things to mind we shouldn’t be too self-righteous about in our ecological consciousness.”

The illustrated 14-page statement begins with a short theological statement on the significance of water, then explains why safe drinking water is a human right linked to the right to life.

“It’s readable and helpful,” the archbishop said, noting he hopes it will be useful for teachers. 

“The statement could have gone farther,” said Joe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, but he is pleased it is highlighting an important issue and that improving water supplies for Indigenous Canadians is a “way of reconciliation.”

Gunn pointed out “water” is cited 47 times in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which is also cited in the document.

The CCCB statement condemns a move to privatize water supplies and the rampant use of bottled water that is often taken from local municipal water supplies and marked up exorbitantly.

“If this letter moves Canadian communities, if it moves our churches to stop using bottled water, to keep water as a public good, a human right, that’s a good thing,” Gunn said. “The one thing they didn’t talk about that’s huge — the whole question of raw sewage flushed into waterways.”  

He pointed out that raw sewage runs into the Ottawa River when Ottawa’s sewage system gets overloaded by the rains, and some communities like Victoria, B.C., dump raw sewage into the sea.

“We should be aware of our consumption patterns,” said Miller. “Like any resource we shouldn’t squander it. We should use it appropriately.”  

The document suggested action items such as: avoiding bottled water, reducing consumption, joining a conservation group that protects lakes and rivers and ensuring the federal government follows through on its promise of safe drinking water for Indigenous communities.

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