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One Company's Solution to Canada's Aboriginal Water Crisis: 60,000 Bottles of 'Activate Vitamin Drinks'

In Canada, there are more than 130 boil water advisories on 87 First Nations — and that doesn't include those in British Columbia.

by Hilary Beaumont
Mar 8 2016, 8:05pm

Shoal Lake

A Canadian company is giving out 60,000 bottles of vitamin water as a "band aid" solution to a water crisis that's plagued some First Nations in Canada for 20 years.

Not everyone is happy, though.

Last week, Unique Foods Canada Inc. announced it was donating 30,000 bottles of its Activate Vitamin Drinks to Six Nations First Nation in Ontario "as a catalyst of a clean water movement for First Nations communities across Ontario and the rest of Canada."

The company plans to announce another donation of 30,000 bottles, this time to Shoal Lake 40, an Aboriginal community that sits on the Manitoba-Ontario border and that has been on a boil water advisory for more than 18 years.

Six Nations Chief Ava Hill applauded the donation, saying in an interview, "we're very grateful for it." But the gesture isn't exactly garnering excitement from residents of Shoal Lake 40, who worry about garbage mounting on the island community, and that someone might drown while trying to deliver bottles across the ice road, which is melting.

"Oh heck! So we don't need a water treatment plant, we'll just get water bottles sent," Daryl Redsky, who lives in Shoal Lake 40, quipped.

"It isn't a long-term solution. I mean, it's a long-term benefit to the company, but it's not a long-term solution to our community."

The vitamin water — which is a bottle of filtered water that comes with a separate vitamin mixture that includes stevia — isn't meant to be a long-term solution, Unique Foods spokesperson Josh Silver told VICE News. It's intended to spur the federal government into action — while making the company look good, too.

In Canada, the lack of safe drinking water on Aboriginal reserves has garnered increasing attention. There are more than 130 boil water advisories on 87 First Nations — not including those in British Columbia — as of December 31.

Enza Ruscillo, with the charity Brands for Canada, told VICE News the organization approached Unique Foods with the idea in hopes it would "make a dent in the issue."

"Nobody is selling product and making a profit on this," added Silver, who called the donation a "band aid" solution.

Six Nations Chief Ava Hill, who was quoted in the company's press release, told VICE News that she was away when the company reached out to make a donation, so it was arranged through her staff.

"Businesses are always promoting themselves," she said. "We appreciate the donation they made to our community, and they're also getting the message out there that's going along with what the prime minister said, that there has to be clean water in all the First Nations across the country."

Related: These People Haven't Had Clean Water To Drink For 20 Years In Canada

Six Nations, located near Hamilton, Ontario, opened a new water treatment plant in 2014 to provide clean water by pipe to 9 percent of residents, but distribution of that water is still a problem.

Shoal Lake 40, on the other hand, has been asking for a water treatment plant and an access road dubbed Freedom Road for years.  

Shoal Lake 40 resident Samantha Redsky raised concerns about the extra garbage on the isolated reserve, which already relies on bottled water shipments, and suggested the company had not thought the logistics of the delivery through.

"Not everyone is willing to come across [the ice road] and risk their lives while making a delivery," she said. "That is what they'll be doing if they're going to deliver water on an ice road that's not really safe any more."

Nine people in Shoal Lake 40 have died falling through the ice, which is especially treacherous in the spring and fall.

But Silver said he had heard a lot of positive feedback about the company's donation.

"I respect where [Daryl Redsky's] coming from because if I was living in that community, I'd feel frustrated as well," said Silver. "But in my humble opinion, he may be a little bit misguided because what he's suggesting is, yes, the government may not be fulfilling the need of what they need to do, ok, so what should the rest of us do? We should sit around and do nothing?"

"We can't just rely on the government," Silver continued. "Individuals and companies as well need to get involved."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed during his election campaign last year to end boil water advisories on First Nation reserves within five years.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont