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The High Cost of Lousy Water

Issue: 41 Section: Original Peoples Geography: Ontario Topics: water

November 22, 2006

The High Cost of Lousy Water

Water Crisis in Indigenous 'Canadian' Communities

by Kim Petersen

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Clean water is a rarity on many reserves. According to Health Canada, as of November 10, 86 First Nations communities were under drinking water advisories across Canada. photo: Sparrows' Friend
Cuts to programs and services on the Kashechewan First Nation reserve in northern Ontario are causing some people to accuse the federal government of trying to make up the costs of last year's evacuation. In April 2005, Cree living in the community of about 1,900 people, 10 kilometers upstream from James Bay, were flown out due to sewage-contaminated drinking water. The community was evacuated again after flooding in April 2006.

Kashechewan had already been under a boil-water advisory for two years before the first evacuation. The community remains under a precautionary drinking water advisory, but Health Canada states that essential upgrades to Kashechewan's water systems have been carried out and that certified personnel are closely monitoring the system. Consequently, Health Canada maintains that Kashechewan's water system no longer poses a high risk to health.

But Kashechewan is just one of many First Nations communities with boil-water advisories. According to Health Canada, as of November 10, 86 First Nations communities were under drinking water advisories across Canada.

While Canada might possess as much as 20 per cent of the world's supply of fresh water, usable freshwater is much less. Still, Environment Canada says that Canada has seven per cent of the world's renewable fresh water.

While everyone needs water to survive, water is also important in the culture of the Original Peoples; Original Peoples have long been connected with waterways. This reverence for water is exemplified by the Cree in northern Manitoba at Echimamish. Echimamish River, "the-river-that-flows-both-ways," flows east into the Hayes River and west into the Nelson River. This awe-inspiring reversal of flow eased travelling between the rivers. In gratitude, the Original Peoples paid tribute after each crossing.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights holds that the right to water is crucial to human dignity and that other rights flow from this. Nonetheless, uranium contamination in Sahtu (Great Bear Lake), mercury poisoning in northern Canada and the flooding of territory by huge hydro-electric projects and other industrial projects have imperiled the salubrity of many bodies of water on indigenous land.

With this in mind, in early September, Deh Cho First Nation Grand Chief Herb Norwegian hosted a gathering of approximately 200 Original Peoples from Alberta, British Columbia and Denendeh (Northwest Territories) in Liidlii Kué (colonial designation: Fort Simpson) to discuss how to improve water quality and preserve the supply of fresh water.

"In Canada we have an abundance [of water] and we take it for granted, but I think we need to be very serious about what we have at our doorsteps. First Nations have been using it for thousands of years and now we want to have something done about the problems that are coming our direction," said Norwegian.

Pat Marcel, an elder and tribal chairman from Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, blamed the greed of governments and industry for the present predicament of contaminated and depleted water.

That greed might extend to having Original Peoples pay for the poor condition of their water infrastructure. Wawatay Online News reports that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) may freeze funding for First Nations in Ontario to recoup the costs incurred by the evacuation of Kashechewan that occurred earlier this year.

According to Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy, INAC is "creating further bureaucratic delays in already approved capital projects because they have to save money."

Charlie Angus, NDP Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay is critical of the government's attempt to recoup funds in Kashechewan. Angus was quoted: "You name me one non-native community in this country that ever suffered from a natural disaster that had to pay for the cost of this natural disaster by taking funding dollars from other communities."

INAC denies the charges.

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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.

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