In 1995, Health Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) found that 25 percent of the water systems in First Nations posed health and safety risks. In 2001, INAC found “significant risk” to water quality and safety in 75 percent of water systems in First Nations. In 2011, INAC reported to the Auditor General that more than 50 percent of First Nation water systems posed a significant risk to community members.
Here we are again in 2021, with another report by the Auditor General which finds that 43 percent of all water systems on reserve are at medium or high risk—the same risk level from 2014. In other words, it has not improved.
The Auditor General’s role is an important one. It is meant to provide objective information about the government’s management of resources and its programs and services. The AG also provides advice in the form of recommendations on how to best remedy any deficiencies. The objective of the most recent report was to determine whether Indigenous Services Canada (formerly INAC) is providing adequate support to First Nations to ensure they have access to clean drinking water. The answer was a clear ‘no’:
Overall, Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. Drinking water advisories remained a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.
But the report reveals far more about the current government’s failure to live up to its own political promises—it also reveals some of the root causes of long-standing drinking water advisories on First Nations across the country.
For example, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has not amended its funding formula for the operation and maintenance (O&M) needs of First Nation water systems for more than 30 years. This means that the formula does not take into account new technology or the actual costs of operating and maintaining the water systems. It is also notable that ISC funds First Nation water operators at rates 30 percent less than Canadian water operators. In addition, ISC policy only provides 80 percent of the O&M needs and in some cases, they do not even provide that much. How are First Nations supposed to come up with the rest of the funds, when many are also facing a housing crisis?
To make matters worse, ISC’s antiquated funding formula does not take into account the actual condition of the water system as determined by its own risk assessments. Thus, 80 percent funding for O&M for a water system they presume is in working order is a recipe for disaster. According to the report:
This finding matters because if operations and maintenance funding is insufficient, water-related infrastructure may continue to deteriorate at a faster-than-expected rate, and overall costs may continue to increase as infrastructure ages.
In other words, for every year that ISC underfunds water systems on reserve, the greater the health risk to community members and the higher the costs will be to repair them down the road. It is also important to note here that this report only deals with First Nations that have public drinking water systems. There is no ISC funding for those who rely on wells, cisterns or lack running water altogether, which accounts for a third of all First Nations households. ISC has been able to skirt by this issue and has not accounted for First Nations families living without running water at all. In other words, this AG’s report is just the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger crisis.
In 2019, when ISC was confronted with media stories about Garden Hill First Nation in Manitoba having 180 homes without running water or indoor plumbing, Deputy Director Michel Burrowes refused to provide funding to address the issue. He responded to media by suggesting that: “Frankly, people should be living in other places.” This comes from a department whose mandate is to improve the socioeconomic conditions of First Nations and has a legal, fiduciary obligation to act in their best interests. There is more than outdated policy at play here. ISC’s actions are nothing short of systemic racism and the problem is far greater than the numbers would suggest.
Even the standard by which ISC measures its performance on clean water in First Nations is somewhat of a shell game. Of the more than 600 First Nations, there are approximately 1,050 water systems. The AG reports that 60 long-term drinking water advisories (DWA) remain in place in 41 First Nations. What gets less attention are the so-called short term DWAs, of which there were 1,281 during the reporting period. About 11 percent of these lasted more than two months and 19 water systems had cumulative short term DWA that totalled more than a year. In other words, many DWAs should be considered long-term but for the way DWA length is calculated. Similarly, the AG noted that ISC considers a long-term DWA as lifted if it provides an interim solution, like trucking in water, but fails to address the deficiency in the water system. If we were to exclude all those situations and add the cumulative short-term DWAs, Canadians would see the problem is far worse than presented by ISC. When do we move past the shell games and treat this as the national emergency that it is?
Every few years, the lack of clean drinking water in First Nations grabs the attention of the media and the Canadian public is outraged. No Canadian family would settle for bathing only once a week or going 10 years without safe drinking water. It simply would not be tolerated. The fact that we are in a pandemic makes the lack of clean drinking water even more of a crisis. Core pandemic measures which focus on isolating at home, social distancing and washing your hands, frequently are not possible for all First Nations people—some of whom live in overcrowded, mouldy houses without clean drinking water or indoor plumbing. This is something that the United Nations flagged early on in the pandemic as a priority for states with Indigenous populations: to ensure access to clean drinking water.
It is not like Canada does not have the human resources to get water to First Nations. The military was sent into long-term care homes during the pandemic in order to save lives. Canada has also sent the military to other countries to provide drinking water, housing, food and healthcare during times of crisis. For example, DART (the Disaster Assistance Response Team), which is made up of Canadian armed forces and civilian experts, has been regularly dispatched to other countries to provide emergency aide like clean water. In 2015 DART provided clean drinking water, water filtration units and healthcare to Nepal after an earthquake. In 2013, it provided food, clean water and shelter to residents of the Philippines after a Typhoon. DART has provided millions of litres of clean water to other countries, including Haiti in 2010, Pakistan in 2005, Sri Lanka in 2004, Turkey in 1999 and Honduras in 1998.
While I am not suggesting a military response is the right one, what I am saying is that Canada has always had the means to end this crisis. Billions of dollars appeared literally overnight for pandemic relief, which shows where there is political will, there is a way. It does not go without notice that the Trudeau government had no problem finding $7 billion dollars in a hurry to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline. Speaking of pipelines, none of the man camps associated with pipeline construction, mining work or other infrastructure projects in Canada seem to lack in safe housing, clean water, healthy food and access to healthcare. According to the federal government, there are more than 840,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada servicing the oil and gas industry. So, where are the pipelines for water in First Nations?
The question that needs to be asked is what sort of mindset allows this crisis to continue? It cannot be explained by political orientation as both Conservative and Liberal governments have failed to remedy the issue for decades. Perhaps we need to look back at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which found that governments in Canada treat Indigenous peoples as less worthy of basic human rights. Until we confront the racist underpinnings of government laws and policies—like funding policies for water systems on reserves—we will never end the water crisis in First Nations.
Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.