Our Times 3

Polluted Water Hits First Nations, but doesn’t stop there

Indigenous Politics

June 19, 2006

Grassy Narrows First Nation gets a boil-water advisory from the Medical Services Environmental Health Worker for Treaty #3 First Nations. My first thought was: “I thought we were safe.” To say the least, it’s very inconvenient to boil water for two minutes to kill any bacteria that live in it. But if we do not boil the water, the elders, infants and children, and weak adults are susceptible to severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and/or vomiting.

Two years ago, Kashechewan First Nation, a remote northern Ontario community, was in the headlines for E. coli in their water. The mainstream media gave them lots of coverage for a while, showing photos of rashes on little babies’ arms, stomachs and legs, and on some adults, too. In my mind I assumed that Keshechewan First Nation was too far away ever to touch our lives – that these people were way up north and had to live in severe Third World conditions. Not us in Treaty #3 traditional territory – the land of 10,000 freshwater lakes. I felt we would never run into that problem. We are so close to urban centres – Kenora, an hour away, and Winnipeg, three hours away. This is the land of pristine lakes and streams, and we call it paradise!

Jody, Technical Services Officer of Bimose Tribal Council, says that, of the eleven Treaty #3 reserves they serve, five have new water plants. The rest have water plants from 1995 or later. Each water plant was built in accordance with standards in the year it was built. But since Indian reserves are under the federal jurisdiction, this also means federal water-quality standards – which are lower than provincial standards.

John Hummel is a longtime grassroots activist who lives in Nelson, British Columbia, in a 100-year-old stone cottage. John has been one of my mentors for the past six years. One of the things he disclosed to me is that one quarter (150) of over 600 First Nations communities across Canada live downstream from paper mills and mines. The Fraser River alone has ninety First Nations communities situated beside it. Is there a connection, here, as to why First Nations people suffer in epidemic proportions from Type 2 Diabetes? John was able to find numerous research papers done in Australia that showed Aborigines suffering from Type 2 Diabetes and its link to dioxin furans. Mostly, dioxin furans come from mill, mine and incinerator smokestacks, and there is a fallout zone on the land and water that surrounds such companies. Sometimes the fall-out zone is on the other side of the world, because of how our planet’s wind currents pick up dust and carry it around the world. To check out John Hummel’s “Research for Health” Project, go to

Water is part of the processing of many products in industry. These industries are the main polluters in the world, and they are a major reason why the water has become undrinkable and the air has become unbreathable. The Weyerhaeuser Paper Mill in Dryden Ontario is located approximately 200 kilometres upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation on the English Wabigoon River system. Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) website lists the chemicals that are dumped into this river system from the Weyerhaeuser mill. The list includes 31 chemicals: ammonia: 128.441 tonnes; methanol: 123.062 tonnes; phenanthrene: 89.656 kilograms; phosphorus: 44.161 tonnes; sulfuric acid: 7.031 tonnes – just to name a few. Air-contaminant substances include carbon monoxide: 1249.591 tonnes; oxides of nitorogen: 789.256 tonnes; volatile organic compounds (VOCs): 160.619 tonnes (these are three of the seven air contaminants listed). One ecologist has described this as a “toxic soup” that is being dumped into the water. Imagine the First Nations people that live downstream from that toxic soup. What kind of ailments do they get as a result? The ecologist said some of the chemicals might evaporate, but as they join together in the water, they become chemically joined and can form new chemicals. Imagine what this means for the ninety First Nations that live along the Fraser River. All these people become exposed to these chemicals by way of the water, fish, plants and air.

Three years ago I told a group of people at Winnipeg’s Mondragón Bookstore and Coffeehouse that it was not normal to buy a bottle of water. We human beings are so adaptive that we do not fuss much about buying a “cool” brand of water. Somehow, society is in a state of water-drinking metamorphosis. Remember the day the water did not smell like chlorine? When the term “E. coli” was rare? Today, we go the wholesale stores and buy cases of water (plain or flavoured) or get those 19-litre jugs. It has become a normal part of our lives. The pollution does not stop at First Nations communities; it continues onward to all societies that live by the watersheds. So, where are all the voices to stop this disintegration of human health?

In December, 2002, the residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation decided to stop logging trucks from entering their traditional territory. We had completed three contaminant studies, and had found high levels of mercury in the fish and forty times the acceptable levels of mercury in an otter. We always knew there was a reason why women were miscarrying, why three children had brain tumours, the high incidence of thyroid disease, the Type 2 Diabetes, the cancers and the seizures in children. To put it simply, there is a silent war out there, and it does not only happen on Indian reserves. It is happening all around us. If we do not stop this desecration of humankind and our planet, then we will not survive as a healthy species in the next twenty years.

I imagine all the living planets in the universe as I look up at the stars, and I often wonder if those living beings out there are as stupid as us. We know we are polluting the water. We know we are destroying the air, the plants, the animals, ourselves and the future generations, and yet we continue on with our lifestyles.

This article appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Good to the Last Drop).


CUPE 2021 leaderboard

Browse the Archive