When we think about the 2.1 billion people who live without safe drinking water worldwide, we tend to think of drought-stricken families in countries where lakes and rivers are scarce. Most Canadians don’t consider the crisis closer to home, where vast freshwater resources help us forget that thousands of people within our borders are living with contaminated water.
Today, there are 2,918 First Nations homes under long-term drinking water advisories, meaning residents haven’t been able to drink the water from their taps for at least a year—often much longer.
Neskantaga First Nation, in Ontario, has been under advisory almost 25 years, relying on a temporary water filtration system installed nearly a decade ago, and since upgraded through ad hoc modifications. A new water treatment plant was supposed to be finished in May 2018, but progress has dragged and last month the community declared a state of emergency.
As many as 90 per cent of residents in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, also in Ontario, are suffering ongoing effects of mercury poisoning, including loss of feeling in fingers and toes, due to industrial pollution residue dating back to the 60s and 70s. Local mercury levels were still rising in 2015.
First Nations rank high on Canada’s list of underserved communities, but water projects are an especially big blot on our already spotty record. A 2014 UN report called the water situation on reserves “troubling.”
Clean water access is normally the responsibility of provincial governments, but reserves fall under federal jurisdiction. The shared responsibility of water treatment often falls into the cracks between Health Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and First Nations. To make matters worse, there are no legally binding regulations to hold the government accountable for water on reserves.
Another challenge is erratic funding. Government changeover and shifting political priorities mean projects get cut off before maintenance structures are put in place.
Fortunately, there’s been some forward momentum. A recent push from Ottawa aims to restore clear water to all communities under long-term drinking water advisories by 2021. Since November 2015, 79 long-term advisories have been lifted and 61 remain.
With Canada’s legacy of failed projects and funding cuts, it’s a crucial time for Canadians to step up and call for continued progress.
During Water Quality Month, check out the live map of water advisories on the Indigenous Services Canada web page, under the link “Water in First Nations Communities.” If there’s one in your province, write to your MP to ask for an update. If a ban was recently lifted in your area, note the progress and ask what will be done to sustain it. Training water operators in maintenance is key to the long-term success of these projects.
Come election time, look for Indigenous clean water issues in party platforms. Let your candidates know it’s a priority. There’s no reason anyone in a nation with Canada’s freshwater resources should be drinking industrial run-off or risking a hospital visit over a sip of tap water.
We’re encouraged by the progress that’s been made. If we work together, we can ensure there’s more in the future.
Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.