Image via Flickr user eerror.
Four Alberta First Nations have filed a lawsuit against the federal government for what they say is Ottawa’s inability to ensure that safe drinking water is available on reserves. The Tsuu T'ina, Ermineskin, Sucker Creek, and Blood Tribe have faced persistent problems—perennial boil water advisories, mice found floating in cisterns, unusually high rates of cancer and hepatitis—that the bands believe can be blamed on the water flowing through the taps in their communities.
A statement of claim filed last month accuses the government of “creating and sustaining unsafe drinking water conditions,” and levels that substandard water treatment facilities were built on the reserves listed in the official court document. It asks the court to force the feds to upgrade antiquated water systems, provide servicing support to maintain the infrastructure and refund any money the bands say has been lost to the years of inaction. In short, the claimants are battling for parity—to see that aboriginal water and wastewater infrastructures are in line with that afforded non-aboriginal Canadians.
The water woes faced by the four bands are not isolated incidents, but more like case studies into a larger, uglier issue. In 2011, the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater—the most comprehensive independent assessment of its kind ever conducted by a federal government—flushed out some dire facts. Contractors evaluated the water systems in 97 percent of First Nation communities in Canada and found that 73 percent were at high or medium risk. Of the 532 wastewater systems inspected, 14 percent were classified high risk and 51 percent as medium, with only 35 percent considered at low overall risk.
Earlier this month Health Canada released data on some of the bands dealing with drinking water advisories (DWAs). The stats proved a cause for concern. Excluding British Columbia, there were 130 DWAs in 91 aboriginal communities as of May 31. On any given day, there are roughly 100 First Nations under DWAs and that number is sometimes upwards of 130. Nearly 30 reserves have been under water advisories for five-plus years, 14 for over 10 years, and three for more than 15 years.
Some of the advisories included orders not to consume the water in any circumstance, meaning that, even if boiled, it could still be harmful. The Kitigan Zibi reserve southwest of Maniwaki in Quebec has been under a do-not-consume order since 2004 because of high levels of uranium in the water.
Alberta’s AFN regional chief Cameron Alexis empathizes with the four bands in his jurisdiction that have pushed this matter into the courts, but sees the water issue as systemic, indiscriminately affecting reserves the country over. Remedying this problem, both in the province and elsewhere, he says, is atop the AFN agenda and something that needs to be of concern to all First Nations.
“Water is an issue across Canada, all inclusive. I think very simply it is evidenced this federal government has not done their fiduciary responsibility and at AFN we can advocate for the best interests of our people, relative to safe water management and wastewater disposal. But in order to do this, we need proper infrastructure and that is another key issue that the honourable minister has not addressed. This is a human rights issue.”
Emma Lui, national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, agrees. The issue, she says, is a grave violation of human rights. Governments, she continues, are bound to ensuring access to clean water, as the United Nations has declared that a basic human right. As such, she believes the present government continues to display a disregard and disrespect for the rule of law by “gutting environmental legislation,” among other missteps.
“The communities are stating that there has been a breach of Section 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that the federal government has a responsibility for indigenous lands, and so they do have a responsibility to provide clean water to indigenous communities. The Harper government is not fulfilling its obligation to provide drinking water to these communities.”
A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Michelle Perron, says the department is committed to addressing on-reserve water and wastewater issues. “First Nations should have the same access to safe, clean drinking water in their communities as all other Canadians. Investments will continue to support the comprehensive long-term plan to improve drinking water and wastewater systems on First Nation lands.”
That plan, she points out, is founded on four pillars: enhanced building and operator training, enforceable standards, protection of public health, and infrastructure investments. In addition to passing the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, the government has also agreed to an extension of the First Nation Water and Wastewater Action Plan, which will see $324 million earmarked for the cause in question.
While the figure may seem promising, it’s a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to effect lasting change. Neegan Burnside Ltd., the independent contractor responsible for conducting the aforementioned national assessment, projects it will cost $1.2 billion to get the shoddy water systems up to government standards, with another $4.7 billion needed for servicing the infrastructure over 10 years.
The four First Nation communities involved in the federal lawsuit say the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which was passed in 2013, has in fact not helped improve water conditions and argue that the bill merely grants the government protection from legal backlash. Jim Badger, Sucker Creek chief, says the court documents were filed only after years of diplomatic efforts proved pointless and sweeping omnibus bills dusted any hope of the water issue being resolved amicably.
“We’ve got legislation that protects the federal government from liability if someone in our community gets sick or dies from drinking water. This response is shameful,” he says, adding: “I would have to say [this issue amounts to] racism at the highest level. Why are they doing this to us? Is there a war going on that I don’t know about?”