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The Water Crisis on First Nations Reserves

By: Sophie Live Tan


What did you do earlier today? Did you happen to drink a glass of water?


Well, if you did, you probably didn’t think twice about it. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many who live on First Nations reserves.


Many of these communities are under drinking water advisories, meaning that they can not immediately use the water that comes out of their tap, something many of us take for granted. Now, these advisories vary in severity, shown in the following table.


What does an advisory mean?

When an advisory is placed on a community, it is an indication that the water system is contaminated and unsafe to use. These contaminants include Escherichia coli (E. coli), coliform, uranium and trihalomethanes. E. coli is a type of coliform bacteria, which causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms, possibly leading to death. For instance, an E. coli outbreak in 2000, located in Walkerton, Ontario, caused 7 deaths and hundreds to fall ill. The presence of this bacteria is due to poor wastewater management, both in the community and outside sources. Additionally, the trihalomethanes are cancer-causing chemical compounds, caused by the reaction between dirty water and the chemicals used to treat it. Now, although uranium is naturally occurring, consumption can have a direct effect on one’s kidneys, possibly causing kidney failure or death.


Who does this issue affect?

After hearing the scary effects of drinking contaminated water, you probably would like to know where this takes place. Well, in Canada, there were 134 advisories in place in 2016, with 85 of them in First Nations reserves. This heavy concentration in First Nations communities is due to a variety of reasons, including the absence of binding regulations for water in reserves, the lack of budgeting allocated to costs for water systems, the missing support for water operators, and too many more. In terms of the lack of regulations, provincial regulations for safe drinking water do not apply to First Nations living on reserves. Considering this, it’s no surprise that there are so many advisories in place, as there are no laws established to ensure the water is safe to use. The purpose of these regulations is to ensure that the health of Canadians is protected, but the nonexistence of these further demonstrates the discrimination against First Nations that continues to this day. Looking back to the colonization of Canada, back to when the government passed the Indian Act in 1876, we see that specific plots of land were carved out for First Nations. The goal was to push them out, allowing European farmers to take their traditional lands for their own purposes. The act also gave the government control over many aspects of their lives, including their property, money, status, education and so many more key components. Now, the treatment they are receiving is simply inhumane, which just goes to show that not much has changed, despite Canada’s claims of striving for reconciliation. Many First Nations people are tired of having to boil their water before use, resulting in the unsafe consumption of it. This water crisis is why many elders in communities believe the child mortality rate is so high.


What is currently being done?

The federal government has been working on removing long-term advisories by March 2021, those that have been in place for more than a year, as promised by Justin Trudeau when he was elected. This means that after testing the water, it is now proven safe to use, possibly due to new infrastructure or treatment plants. So far, they have reduced the number of long-term advisories on reserves from 105 in 2015 to 61 as of February 2020, which sounds promising, but isn’t all that great. This is because this data does not include long-term advisories that were removed, only to have a short-term advisory be replaced right after. It also does not include data from B.C. or the territories. Also, risk scores can give you more information regarding a community’s water situation. A risk score is an assessment used to evaluate a community’s water supply. A higher risk score means that the system can easily malfunction, leading to unsafe water. This could mean a small oil or gasoline spill in a nearby lake where a community gets its water from. The management may not be able to handle the issue, no matter how small, resulting in an advisory being placed. So, a risk score tells you how dangerous a community’s water system is, without the extreme consequence of a water advisory.


The Inequalities Going On

Despite the large number of advisories being removed, the national average of risk scores has not changed as drastically as the numbers presented to us. It has mostly stayed the same, with minimal progress. Furthermore, even if Trudeau gets rid of all of them, he will not be solving the fundamental problems or create a lasting solution. For example, when taking a look at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, we can see how the federal government approaches this issue in terms of action in the community. This reserve received a water treatment plant in 2014, only for it to help out a small portion of the community’s population. This is because many of the houses near the plant do not have functioning water pipes that bring the water to them. Instead, they must go out and carry jugs of clean water back to their home. Additionally, the government does not provide the community with enough money to keep the plant running. They simply buy the plant, resulting in the community’s inability to run or operate it. However, a municipality of a similar size would receive a much larger budget if they were to ever have a water crisis. If a more well-known town like Markham were to have a water crisis, the government would be jumping to solve the problem. So, why is a reserve treated as less important? This is an inequality that we must not only work on but get rid of.


Solutions

So, what can we do? Well, firstly, although it is not a complete solution, we can donate money to help these First Nations communities. For example, we can donate to NGOs such as Water First, not only to help them economically but also to garner attention from others who are not aware of this issue. Additionally, we can write to our politicians, asking them to continue the efforts in helping the water crisis. With this recognition, we will slowly, but surely, be able to make a change. It won’t come immediately, but it will definitely help.


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