Safe drinking water is taken for granted in Canada — except on far too many First Nation reserves. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Cathy Majtenyi: Glass houses and safe drinking water

By 
  • March 12, 2021

It’s an end-of-March deadline that’s not going to be met. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has failed to deliver on his election promise that public water systems on all First Nations reserves will be potable by March 31, 2021, says Canada’s Auditor General.

According to Indigenous Services Canada statistics, there are still 58 long-term drinking water advisories in 39 First Nations communities, mostly in Ontario, with 99 having been lifted since 2015.

Following the release of the Auditor General’s report Feb. 25, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller reiterated how his department has worked with communities to “formulate the best path forward in each case,” spending over $3.5 billion since 2016 to do so. “Despite the challenges, we’re confident the we’re on the right path,” he told reporters.

But Auditor General Karen Hogan would have none of that, noting how advisories “have remained a constant in many communities with almost half outstanding for more than 10 years.

“I’m very concerned and honestly disheartened that this long-standing issue is still not resolved,” she said. “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.”

Key findings in Report 3 — Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities – Indigenous Services Canada include:

  • No regulatory regime is in place for managing drinking water in First Nations communities, which would provide drinking water protections comparable with other communities in Canada.
  • An outdated policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of water infrastructure are constraining efforts to make water drinkable.
  • A lack of “continued partnership” between Indigenous Services and First Nations results in on-going safe drinking water challenges.

“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,” Hogan said in a release.

It is imperative that Indigenous Services Canada do this and that all Canadians express their outrage and put pressure on the federal government to make right the terrible injustice of lack of access to clean drinking water. Not to do so has had, and will continue to have, dire consequences.

Just ask Darwin Fobister. The then-20-year-old told a Human Rights Watch researcher in 2017 that his hands tremble, he loses his balance and he has spells of tunnel vision, all symptoms of the mercury that has been poisoning him and his Grassy Narrows First Nation community in northwestern Ontario ever since a chemical plant dumped toxic mercury into a river decades ago.

In fact, 90 per cent of residents show signs of mercury poisoning, which causes a slew of conditions like hearing loss and brain damage.

Or nine-year-old Bedahbun (Bee) Moonias. She and fellow members of Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario were evacuated for three months late last year after a pump leaked mineral oil into their reservoir.

Neskantaga First Nation has not had clean water for 25 years, ever since a filtration system was built incorrectly in the early 1990s. Water-borne pathogens including E. coli render the water unsafe to drink, making it necessary for residents to purchase expensive water bottles. When they bathe in it, the water gives people rashes and itchy skin.

“Sometimes, I feel like we don’t exist,” Moonias told the CBC. “Like, we’re just ghosts and we’re just put in a drawer, in a box.”

A report last year by the Council of Canadians says 73 per cent of First Nations’ water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis devotes a whole section on the importance of water for human life and his concern for the marginalized in this area: “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity (his emphasis).”

We must end this “apartheid system of access to clean drinking water,” as NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa put it.

As long as this is allowed to continue, we’ve lost all moral authority to call ourselves a progressive, caring nation. We cannot in good conscience criticize repressive governments or lead overseas development efforts when such inequality exists in our own home.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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