In Canada, one of the most freshwater-rich nations in the world, members of the Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario only see water the color of dehydrated urine pour out of their faucets. People typically experience itchy, dry skin after showering in this water, and many children run around with skin conditions like eczema as a result. Drinking the water can be even worse. People suffer from cancer, diarrhea, influenza, whooping cough, and pneumonia, among other waterborne illnesses.
Neskantaga is just one of the hundreds of First Nations without access to clean water. Earlier this year, they joined forces with the Circle Lake First Nation and the Tataskweyak Cree First Nation to sue Canada’s federal government over these conditions deemed “consistent with life in developing countries.” This lawsuit represented every indigenous individual who experienced a “boil water” advisory every year from November 20, 1995, to the present. As a result, at the end of July 2021, the federal government reached a settlement of nearly C$8 billion ($6.4 billion USD) with the First Nations.
Without Clean Water for Decades
The 630 First Nations of Canada, representing 330,000 people, are very diverse in their locations and their water supplies. Some get their water from open lakes or streams while others get their supply from groundwater or wells. This can result in different contamination issues from naturally occurring parasite or bacterial build-up to rusting pipes and pollution from nearby industry activity.
The one thing many First Nations have in common is a lack of access to a stable clean water supply. Canadian First Nations either have no water treatment facility, have a facility but no money to maintain it, or have no pipes to run clean water to all homes in a community. For example, the Neskantaga First Nation received a water treatment plant in 1995, but it quickly began failing to properly filter the water. A month later, the Nation received a boil water advisory that has persisted ever since.
Solving the Problem Demands Government Action
Tragically, there is nothing that First Nations can individually do to fix this problem. Canada maintains its colonial rules over native tribes, which restrict tribes from funding and managing their own water treatment facilities. Instead, it is up to the federal government to run the water treatment facilities and address any water issues, which has usually come in the form of issuing “boil water” advisories rather than updating existing treatment plant infrastructure.
As a result, several nations have been without clean water for almost thirty years despite some technically having a water treatment plant. Communities have had to pay for bottled water, and because some First Nations are quite remote, that means flying supplies over by plane.
When Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran for office in 2015, he promised to right this long-standing injustice. Upon taking office, he invested more than C$2 billion in the 105 communities that had drinking water advisories in 2016. At that time, those communities had lacked access to clean drinking water for over a year. Trudeau was able to bring this number down to thirty-three as of April 2021 but missed his goal of getting one hundred communities out of their water crises by March.
Delays Leave Communities in Crisis
The Canadian government says it would have dropped this number further if not for delays in projects from the pandemic, an argument that its own auditor general’s February report conflicts with.
The report found that progress in providing safe drinking water was delayed long before COVID-19 interrupted daily life. And rather than making long-term updates to facilities, many advisories got dropped due to temporary fixes. In addition, much of the government funding mainly goes to building water treatment facilities, not maintenance or operation costs.
Progress in providing safe drinking water was delayed long before COVID-19 interrupted daily life.
Moreover, the government only looks at communities with drinking water advisories, which is the worst-case scenario for water safety. Many communities live in unsatisfactory conditions while not being considered for a water advisory.
“I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved,” Canada Auditor General Karen Hogan told reporters. “Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don’t believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021.”
The actual numbers of contaminated water sites might be higher than reported by the federal government too because they don’t count wells, which twenty percent of First Nations communities rely on as their main water supply. Their numbers also don’t include communities in British Columbia or Canada’s territories.
Canada vs. First Nations
Early this year, the Neskantaga First Nation, the Circle Lake First Nation, and the Tataskweyak Cree First Nation all sued the federal government for C$2.1 billion ($1.7 billion USD)—the cost of getting bottled water to those nations and getting a water treatment plant for the community.
C$1.5 billion of the proposed settlement would go to about 142,000 individuals from 258 First Nations. Individual compensation would be calculated based on how remote the individual’s community is (how much it cost to get clean drinking water transported there), how long they went without clean drinking water, and if the individual suffered any health problems.
Settlement Affirms Canada’s Responsibility to Provide
Canada’s federal government ended up reaching a settlement of nearly C$8 billion with First Nations as of the end of July 2021. It includes the C$1.5 billion in compensation mentioned in the original proposed settlement, but also a C$400 million First Nation economic and cultural restoration fund and C$6 billion that will be distributed as C$400 million annually over the next ten years to First Nations to maintain their access to clean drinking water.
As Canada's senior general counsel Catherine Moore described in a letter to the First Nations, "There is no relationship more important to Canada than our relationship with Indigenous peoples."
She went on to say, "Canada will continue working with Curve Lake First Nation, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, and Neskantaga First Nation, as well as any other First Nations who opt into this litigation, to develop and implement sustainable solutions for addressing their water system needs. All Canadians should have access to safe, clean, and reliable drinking water, and Canada respects the right of Indigenous peoples to obtain guidance from the courts in matters where it is necessary and important to do so."
*Becky Hoag is a science writer with a special interest in climate change communication. You can find her work on her site beckyhoag.com or through her YouTube channel Beckisphere at https://www.youtube.com/c/Beckisphere.