March 22 is World Water Day. What is a more basic right than safe drinking water? Lack of access to safe water can cause cancer, diarrhea, skin infections, influenza, whooping cough, increased rates of pneumonia and other illnesses.
Nevertheless, in Canada, access to safe drinking water is a problem faced by communities across the country, and it is disproportionately First Nations communities that are affected. Despite the fact that Canada has the world’s third largest per capita fresh water reserve, the water many indigenous communities depend on is contaminated, difficult to access, or at risk due to faulty treatment systems.
Safe water supply off-reserves is the responsibility of the provincial governments. But First Nations and the reserves they live on fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government. This two-tiered structure means that while most communities benefit from binding provincial water quality regulations, there are no such enforceable regulations on reserves. In 2016, the Trudeau government announced new funds and commitments to end all long term water advisories by 2021, but past investments of billions of dollars have so far failed to produce lasting results. The lack of binding regulations combined with erratic funding, insufficient infrastructure and degraded water sources have led to systemic problems with drinking water on reserves.
In Canada, about 150 drinking water advisories exist in First Nations communities. The majority of these are long term, meaning they have been in place for over a year, but some have existed for much longer.
According to Ecojustice Canada, this is an ongoing human rights violation that exacerbates present and historic injustices facing First Nations as a result of the legacy of colonialism and systemic racism in Canada.
On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and acknowledged that clean drinking water is essential to the realization of all human rights. Should First Nations communities in Canada have no less?
Nelson chapter, Council of Canadians