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In May, the Polaris Institute, a citizen-focused think tank, released Boiling Point!, a report about the “violation of fundamental human rights” occurring in First Nation communities across Canada.
“For many, water has become a source of fear and people have good reason to believe that what comes out of their taps may be making them sick,” reads the report. This reality is not a new one for First Nations in Canada, and it’s getting worse, not better.
In May 2007, The Dominion reported that 88 First Nations were under a Health Canada drinking water advisory. As of April 18, 2008, almost 100 First Nations are on a drinking water advisory, according to the Polaris Report. Health Canada put the figure at 97 as of July 11, 2008.
Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, believes the lack of progress on obtaining clean water for First Nations “...clearly demonstrates that access to clean water for First Nation citizens is not a priority for Canada.”
“First Nations have always viewed water as a sacred trust. From time immemorial, First Nations have centred their existence on water,” says Fontaine. “Today, it is unacceptable that many of our First Nations should be subjected to conditions where there is no access to safe, potable water...These conditions would not be tolerated in any municipal setting and if they are to occur, swift and decisive action is the norm and is expected.”
Boiling Point! investigated the situation in six First Nations communities across Canada:
Neskantaga First Nation is situated 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay in northern Ontario. The community of 282 has been under a boil water advisory since 1995. Polaris asks: “What other community do you know of in Canada that has been on boil water advisory for 13 years? Would this be acceptable for you, your family, friends and colleagues? What does this say about the federal government’s fiduciary responsibility to First Nations health and safety?”
Boil water advisories only hint at the problems for Neskantaga First Nation. On September 29, 2004, the presence of gasoline and a high level of the suspected carcinogen trihalomethane caused the water supply to be shut down entirely.
The cost of bottled water ($6/litre) is beyond the community’s means. Following the shut down, the department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) provided five litres of water a day per person (insufficient for daily needs, according to Polaris), then, because of the cost, decreased the ration to two litres.
“INAC has a fiduciary and financial responsibility to take care of the people of Neskantaga and to honour our Treaty rights in an adequate standard of living and health care,” says Neskantaga Chief Moonias. “The right to a safe and useable water supply is a right of every person living in this country for the health and well-being of himself and his family.”
“Nowhere else in Canada would anyone accept this,” Moonias continues. “It’s a violation of our fundamental human rights...We’re being treated as second-class citizens.”
“I wonder how different the response would be if the residents of Toronto were without access to water,” he says.
Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg is located in Quebec, 130 kilometres north of Ottawa. The community has been advised to refrain from drinking its well water since 1999, after uranium and other toxic-heavy chemicals were detected. Polaris notes “some progress” for the community’s water situation since 2006, but emphasizes that, “This comes after years of people drinking water that most Canadians would deem undrinkable.”
On the eastern shores of Pikangikum Lake, about 100 kilometres north of Red Lake in northwestern Ontario, is the remote Ojibway community of Pikangikum First Nation. It is a self-sufficient community of 2,300 keen on preserving their culture and language. Indeed, it has the highest rate of indigenous language retention in northern Ontario. Polaris argues, “The case of Pikangikum underscores why Canada must recognize water as a human right and ecological trust.”
Boiling Point! also describes the extreme poverty of Pikangikum First Nation. Juliette Turtle, a 58-year-old woman, and her family of eight live in a 65-square-metre house with no toilet and no running water. In the backyard is an outhouse. When the hole is full, a new hole is dug and the outhouse moved over top. In the same backyard, seven of Turtle’s 12 children are buried. All seven committed suicide.
Particularly frustrating, according to Polaris, is a water treatment plant built in 1995, which is capable of producing enough potable water for the entire community. However, in 2007, 90 per cent of homes were still unconnected.
Despite the clear reality that Pikangikum is in crisis, it is not considered one of the 21 priority communities identified under the federal government’s Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nations Communities.
On the southwestern tip of Lake Athabasca, 200 kilometres from Fort McMurray, in the middle of the Alberta tar sands, is the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
In February 2008, chiefs from Treaties 6, 7 and 8, including Chipewyan First Nation, unanimously urged the Alberta government to enact a moratorium on all new oil sands projects until watershed and resource development plans have been approved by First Nations.
Dr. John O’Connor blew the whistle on unchecked tar sands development after noticing high rates of illnesses, in particular, cholangiocarcinoma, a rare bile duct cancer, in residents of Fort Chipewyan in late 2000. According to the Polaris report, there is a belief among physicians of an effort on the part of the Alberta government to silence O’Connor.
Along the Yukon River lies Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation. The community’s water is supplied by upwards of 90 individual wells and truck delivery. The wells, installed by INAC, are poorly situated and as a result the water is unsafe to drink and the community has been under a boil water advisory for over three years.
Currently, there is a joint initiative between the Canadian Auto Workers and the Assembly of First Nations to help provide clean drinking water in Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.
In northeastern Saskatchewan, the Yellow Quill First Nation was under a boil water advisory from 1995 until 2004. During that time the community got its water from Pipestone Creek, which flows between just five and 15 days every spring. In addition, a town located upstream empties its sewage lagoon into the creek. “[O]ur water was worse than what they had in Walkerton,” says the community’s chief, Robert Whitehead.
Since then, Yellow Quill First Nation’s water source has been switched to an underground well that is being successfully treated through a process developed by Dr. Hans Peterson of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation.
Yellow Quill provides the one sanguine account in the Polaris report. According to Trevor Sutter, communications manager at INAC, the treated water at Yellow Quill is now "very good, very good water."
Peterson reports that, “Two more communities, Pasqua and George Gordon, have now had full-scale Yellow Quill systems for 2.5 years and they are all running flawlessly.”
Peterson is surprised there aren’t more examples of successful water systems in First Nations communities. “For all the hundreds of millions the federal government has spent on researching water through Canada's many universities, Canada's federal research departments, Health Canada, Environment Canada and the National Research Council, would you not have thought that the head of the Assembly of First Nations would have some examples of what those agencies have done in terms of water in aboriginal communities?” he asks. “The fact is a couple of years ago the director general of INAC, Gilles Rochon, told me he had no example of research agencies having done research on aboriginal water issues and then having come up with solutions that could be implemented."
The Safe Drinking Water Foundation is currently working on a Framework for Safe Drinking Water, for which Peterson is hoping to receive funding.
To overcome the disparity between indigenous communities and other Canadian communities, Polaris identifies the need for federal government implementation of long-term solutions based on “equality and respect, including ensuring access to safe drinking water, source water and sanitation.”
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.