A VICE News fact check has found there are First Nation communities in Canada that don’t have clean drinking water even after the federal government claims to have solved the problem.
And communities where the government says the problem is fixed say they face ongoing struggles to keep their water clean and safe to drink.
Indigenous Services Canada, the department responsible for solving the water crisis in First Nations communities, sent us a list of all the drinking water advisories they solved since the Trudeau government took power in November 2015. We called every community on the list.
Although we couldn’t reach every community, 37 out of 50 communities confirmed the list was correct. Lots of them said they were thrilled with their newly drinkable water, with some describing it as “fantastic” and “life-changing.” But a handful of communities on the list said they did not have clean water on the systems the government said they did, and many more said it was a struggle to keep their water safe; ongoing issues including natural disasters, water operators quitting, equipment breakdown, power outages, and delays or shortages in government funding could throw them back on water advisories.
In an interview last week, VICE News asked Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott to name a success story in the government’s quest to ensure the water is safe to drink in First Nations communities. She said Slate Falls, in northern Ontario, was a standout — a community where the government had built an “absolutely beautiful” new water treatment plant, solving 11 water advisories that had been in place since 2005.
But Slate Falls told us they are back on a water advisory. Glen Whiskey-Jack, councillor in charge of water, said there are ongoing deficiencies from the contractor, and “every time the power goes out, the numbers go coo-coo and we end up putting out a boil water advisory.”
When we pointed this out to the minister, she acknowledged that communities can fall back onto short-term drinking water advisories, and said water systems are dependent on other pieces of infrastructure.
It’s one of Canada’s most long-standing human rights issues.
“We are certainly committed to making sure that we deal with all of the other pieces and support communities in the needs that they have,” she said.
Our findings show that despite the government’s new tracking system for water advisories, the government numbers aren’t entirely up-to-date or reliable. And a disturbing decades-long trend continues: while people in Canadian cities don’t have to think about the safety of their tap water, people in many First Nation communities still don’t trust their water because drinking water advisories blink on and off all the time.
It’s one of Canada’s most long-standing human rights issues. Indigenous people living on remote reserves can’t drink, cook or bathe in the water from their taps. Instead many of them receive bottled water rations from the government, or drink the water at their own risk. Some communities, like Neskantaga in northern Ontario, have gone more than 20 years without clean drinking water.
If you ask the government, the scope of the problem they aim to solve is limited to long term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserves, which it says totals 69. However, if you include short term advisories and advisories on private systems, the problem is much larger.
At a VICE Canada town hall ahead of the 2015 federal election, Justin Trudeau vowed to solve all boil water advisories in First Nations communities within five years, short and long term. Since his government took power, the responsibility has fallen on Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott.
“I’m determined not to fail, and if I get a chance to keep doing this it will be my privilege to push it along,” Philpott told VICE News last week.
In our interview, Philpott acknowledged that even if the government is able to meet its commitment by March 2021, there will still be people in First Nation communities who don’t have clean tap water. That’s because the current federal commitment only covers public systems on reserve, not private systems like wells for individual homes.
Here’s what our reporting uncovered.
Every fall, VICE News asks Indigenous Services Canada (formerly INAC) for an up-to-date list of all the water advisories it has solved since the Liberals took power in November 2015. The list includes the community, the water system where the drinking water advisory (DWA) has been lifted, the date the DWA was set, and the date it was lifted.
This year, ISC sent us a list of 70 drinking water advisories in 50 communities that the department said it had solved since the Liberals took power in November 2015.
As with previous fact checks, we called every community more than once, left messages and sent emails. In every case, we reached out to the drinking water experts in each community, whether it was the chief, a councillor in charge of water, a band manager or the water operators themselves — the people who would know whether the water on each system was currently drinkable or not.
As with previous fact checks, it was not possible to reach a water expert in every community — some people were on vacation, some communities were experiencing funerals, some didn’t want to publicly criticize the government because it’s their source of funding.
Of those we did reach, 37 communities out of 50 confirmed that yes, ISC was correct to say they had clean drinking water on the systems they identified.
"I’m determined not to fail."
Five communities on the list, with a total of 17 drinking water advisories between them, told VICE News they did not currently have clean drinking water on the systems ISC identified as safe.
Of the 37 that said the list was correct, four said their clean drinking water was vulnerable due to faulty equipment or lack of funding for upgrades from Indigenous Services Canada. And four communities said frequent natural disasters such as flooding, storms, fires or mudslides are ongoing threats to their drinking water.
Ten communities told us that yes, they had lifted drinking water advisories, but that other water advisories remained in effect in other areas of their community. Some of these were considered “private” systems, so they are not part of the government commitment to bring clean drinking water to all First Nations.
The most surprising finding was that eight First Nations communities said their drinking water was clean, but that their water operators (the people who test the water and run the water treatment plants) keep quitting, due to issues like low pay. The mere act of a water operator quitting is enough to throw a community back onto a drinking water advisory. Communities told us the solution is quite simple: Indigenous Services Canada needs to provide more money so water operator wages on reserve are competitive with municipalities.
Communities still face major issues
Every remote community faces unique struggles in accessing safe water. The issue can be an easy fix, or it can be incredibly complex.
Other than Slate Falls, Sachigo Lake, Ontario, and Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, are two communities that say the government’s list is inaccurate.
Samuel Tait, responsible for operations and maintenance for Sachigo Lake, said his community is having issues with its water treatment plant. He said the water “comes out clean … but the operator wasn’t too sure because the clarifier at the treatment plant is leaking water from the bottom.”
He said the community had set a boil water advisory until they can fix the issue. “We’ve done two patches already, but it’s still leaking.”
They are now waiting for the contractor to give them more information so they can get it fixed. “It is frustrating,” he added.
"No, we don’t have drinking water. It’s clean but it’s not drinking water."
He said the community doesn’t have any communication problems with ISC, and the department is aware of the problem. When VICE News followed up with ISC, they insisted the advisory had been lifted. “There are no active drinking water advisories affecting Sachigo Lake as the First Nation completed interim repairs to the existing facility, with funding support from ISC,” the department said. We called Tait again and he said the community still hadn’t lifted the advisory.
In Cumberland House, Leon Budd, councillor in charge of water, said his community has two water treatment plants and both are in need of an upgrade.
“No, we don’t have drinking water,” Budd said. “It’s clean but it’s not drinking water. There’s too much chlorine in the water, nobody drinks the water. We need to upgrade the water treatment plant.”
Instead of drinking water from the plant, he said everyone in Cumberland House goes to a well four or five kilometres from their homes. “It’s a struggle for our people; most of them don’t have licenses or vehicles. So if we can get the government to cough up some money, we can start on that project ASAP.”
When we asked the department about Cumberland House, they insisted the community had lifted two drinking water advisories on its public systems. “The water quality in these systems currently meets the health criteria recommended in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality,” the department said.
Water quality changes with the weather
Some communities told us they have clean water, but they might not if the weather changes.
In Lake Manitoba, the drinking water quality depends on the time of year, said a source with knowledge of the issue. He did not want to be named because he did not want to publicly criticize the government — the community’s source of funding.
If it rains or snows a lot, he said, “it messes up the water.”
"That keeps us on the edge. So if anything goes down, we’ll be back on the boil water advisory."
As mentioned earlier, Slate Falls is back on a water advisory because storms cause power outages. The same is true for Cowessess. They currently have clean water, but the community is perched at the end of a power grid with its power source 20 to 30 kilometres away, with no backup source of power, making it vulnerable to storms, water operator Jason Delorme said.
“That keeps us on the edge. So if anything goes down, we’ll be back on the boil water advisory.”
Peter Levi, band manager of Indian Island in New Brunswick, said frequent flooding threatens the water quality of his community’s wells. Tsal’alh in B.C. currently has clean water, but anytime there’s a mudslide or a wildfire, the water quality becomes unstable and the community must issue a water advisory, councillor Tim Peter told VICE News.
Breakages and funding issues
Chief Cornelius Wabasse of Webequie said right now his community has clean water, but that won’t be true for long because the water system breaks down so frequently.
“The elders and parents with babies are not comfortable using the water because of the instability,” he said.
When there’s a breakage, elders and infants require bottled water, which ISC is supposed to provide.
“We asked for bottled water to be shipped to us one time when the system broke down, but [ISC] didn’t provide us with that bottled water,” the chief said. “It just happened last month. The water was shut down for two weeks, and we had an outcry but they never gave us bottled water.”
Residents bought their own bottled water from the store at a cost of $19 per case of a dozen 250 ml bottles.
"They’re very slow, they don’t really understand what we go through as remote communities."
“That’s a lot of money,” Wabasse said. “I’m not even sure if they will reimburse that. They probably won’t because they’re saying our water’s so good.”
It’s time consuming and frustrating to get funding from ISC to fix those breakages, he said. “Whenever we call out for funding, or emergency funding, they always tell us to go back to our water and sewer fund from [ISC] and use the money that’s in there, but the money in there has already been used up, and it takes them a long time to get additional funding.”
His community has a contribution agreement with ISC, but breakages in the water and sewer system are not covered under the agreement, he said.
“They’re very slow, they don’t really understand what we go through as remote communities,” he said. “The money has to be ready somehow, but it’s never ready.”
He added that upgrading water plants and equipment is an important issue that doesn’t get enough attention. If the systems don’t keep pace with technology, it’s harder to find replacement parts when they inevitably break down.
“Water monitors will call and say they need new equipment, but that equipment they need is no longer available because it’s out of date,” he explained.
He’s not the only chief to point this out.
Chief Fred Robbins at Esk’etemc, BC, told us his main community has clean water thanks to a new water plant. “This is the first year we’ve had it up and running, which is great.”
But there are 12 homes that run on wells and aren’t hooked up to the system. They need a larger budget to bring them clean water. It’s $800,000 just for a pump station to bring those homes clean water. ISC said that’s too expensive, according to Robbins.
To add to that, Esk’etemc has 18 reserve lands ranging from two to 300 hectares each. All those communities run on wells. They tend to dry out this time of year and fill up again in the spring.
The chief has asked ISC to provide clean water for the 12 homes, and to some of the other 18 Indian Reserve lands, “but they’ve been stretched pretty thin, according to what they’re telling us,” he said. “We’re only allotted one project at a time for infrastructure.”
He added that the government’s decision to split the responsibilities of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in two — creating ISC — has caused chaos in communication. For example, the department has told them they don’t have certain documents when the community has already sent them, he said.
On top of that, Esk’etemc’s population is exploding, and there’s demand for new housing, but they only have space to build homes in areas that are under water advisories.
"Right where the water systems start, that’s where the reserves stop."
Accessing water is another problem. It costs $16,000 to drill a new well on reserve, and there’s no guarantee that water will be safe.
Access to plentiful aquifers and rivers was taken long ago by ranchers, he said, as the state drew up the boundaries of reserve land and kept the choice parts for itself. So, in some cases, the challenges the government now faces in getting water to some First Nations communities are entirely of its own making.
“Right where the water systems start, that’s where the reserves stop,” the chief said. His community’s reserve lands are on “poor, worthless land, rocky land and steep slopes.”
We called the chief the same week that Trudeau was caught on video telling Saskatchewan chiefs he was “really, really upset” about time management during a meeting.
“Trudeau,” Robbins said with a chuckle. “He needs to take a little more time to spend with the First Nations. He needs to make an appearance at some of the First Nations communities out of the blue. Just show up in the community and see what First Nations are saying on a daily basis.”
“I’d welcome him for sure,” he continued. “He’d see the reason why [the water crisis] needs to be solved.”
The brightest story we heard was from Cowichan in B.C.
“Everybody’s finally able to drink water,” Chief William “Chip” Seymour told VICE News. “This has been on a boil order for 20 plus years. The oldest resident said it’s been 30 years since he’s had a drink of water, and now he can go to the tap and get a drink of water.”
He said some of the older children had grown up with no safe tap water. “It’s life changing for people who have never had clean water,” he said.
A safe source of drinking water had “always been there, on the other side of the highway,” he said. They just needed permission to run water lines under the highway — permission they couldn’t get before. “This year, everything fell into place. The highways gave us permission to go underneath, and we got all the funding from [ISC].”
"The oldest resident said it’s been 30 years since he’s had a drink of water, and now he can go to the tap and get a drink of water."
“I’m just happy for the community, very happy for the community,” he said.
The most common thing we heard was that communities were thrilled with their newly clean water, but still had issues they needed fixed.
Abegweit water operator Jacob Jadis said the community had completed $3 million worth of upgrades and had a new water tower. The previous system was “shabby,” but they received money from the federal government to make upgrades.
“It’s better than before, but I’m not going to say it’s the best. Nothing has been fulfilled to the full extent in terms of promises, but it’s better than the previous government for sure,” Jadis said. He is still waiting for upgrades for wastewater treatment, but says their drinking water system is now an “example” set for First Nations in Atlantic Canada.
Councillor Furlon Barker at Hollow Water in Manitoba said chiefs and councillors raised glasses of drinking water to celebrate the opening of their new water plant last month. Not all homes are hooked up to the plant yet, so they are still doing water truck deliveries, and he said they need a higher budget from ISC to have a sufficient supply of chemicals for their plant.
“It’s still inadequate,” he said, but he’s confident issues can be resolved.
In communities like Pauingassi and Kinonjeoshteogon, both in Manitoba, the water is clean but not everyone is drinking it. People are used to the taste of bottled water, and they just don’t trust the tap water yet.
“I’ve tried it and it tastes pretty good,” said Kinonjeoshteogon councillor Hubert Felix Junior.
The blind men and the elephant
In our interview with the minister, she acknowledged that even if the government meets its commitment by March 2021, there will still be people on reserve who cannot drink the water from their taps.
That’s because the current federal commitment only covers public water systems on reserve, not private systems.
Curve Lake First Nation is a great example of why this matters.
Shawn Williams, director of capital works at Curve Lake First Nation, confirmed to VICE News that yes, a water advisory was lifted at the senior’s centre semi-public water system, just as the list from Indigenous Services said. But he added, “We went ahead and did the work ourselves.” They have been waiting for a $15,000 reimbursement from Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) since December 2017/January 2018.
"If you’re looking too closely, you’re not seeing the big picture."
More to the point of the public versus private numbers, he said there are 550 wells on reserve that INAC does not take care of because they are considered private wells. Residents are responsible for their own wells. About 1,350 people rely on those private wells. In some areas due to population density, there are septic systems near the wells, and cross-contamination can happen. The government doesn’t monitor these wells, and some residents don’t test them because they don’t want to know if their water is contaminated or not. So residents are taking a health risk every time they drink or bathe in their well water.
Williams says the commitment should cover public and private systems; most of the private wells were drilled with government money to begin with, he said.
“It’s like the blind men and the elephant,” Williams sagely told VICE News, referring to the fable about the blind men who are each trying to describe an elephant by feeling different parts of the animal. The man touching the tail says the elephant is like a snake, while the man touching the leg says the animal is like a tree tree trunk.
“That’s how INAC sees it,” he said. “If you’re looking too closely, you’re not seeing the big picture.”
"Will we see a day when every single home is connected to a municipal or publicly governed water system? I’m not sure that that’s necessarily realistic."
VICE News asked the minister what it would take to get clean water to everyone in this country.
“I think that’s a good question,” she answered. “We live in a vast country where people often live in very remote settings, literally across the country. Will we see a day when every single home is connected to a municipal or publicly governed water system? I’m not sure that that’s necessarily realistic, but as I said, there are other ways to address those remoteness issues.”
She pointed to the Safe Drinking Water Act as a mechanism that will allow First Nations to address drinking water standards, along with rules around how wells are installed, maintained and tested.
“These are some of the challenges that a country of our size faces. What is different now under our government is that First Nations communities have a partner in the federal government who is heavily, respectfully engaged with them in addressing the challenges that are being faced.”
All photos from VICE Canada's documentary Cut Off.