Water Challenges in Indigenous Communities

As of October 2019, there are 58 Indigenous communities across Canada under long term drinking water advisories. Communities that have no running water at all were not considered when this number was tallied. For example, 10% of First Nation communities have no water services. Across Canada, there are approximately 1800 homes on reserve lacking water service and 1777 that are lacking any type of sewage service. The current Federal government has committed to lifting all long-term water advisories by 2021, which means that over 1000 water systems across Indigenous communities will be upgraded or replaced in the next few years.

A considerable number of these communities have been under a water advisory for multiple consecutive years. Neskantaga, a First Nation community in north western Ontario has been on a long term water advisory since 1995. Other communities include Grassy Narrows, Chippewa of Georgina Island, Eabametoong, and Nibinamik, just to name a few.

What is a water advisory?

An advisory is considered “long term” when it has been in place for 1 year or more.

According to Health Canada, there are three types of water advisories;

  • Boil Water Advisories/Orders: Tap water should be brought to a rolling boil for at least one minute before using it for drinking or brushing your teeth. This advisory is issued when there are disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites in drinking-water systems.
  • Do Not Consume Advisories/Orders: Tap water should not be used for drinking or used for brushing teeth, cooking, washing food in, making infant formula or bathing infant/toddlers in or for giving to pets. Adults and older children can still use for bathing. This advisory is issued when there is a contaminant in the water that cannot be removed by boiling.
  • Do Not Use Advisories/Orders: Tap water should not be used for any reason. This advisory is issued when exposure to the water could cause skin, eye, or nose irritation and the contamination cannot be removed by boiling.

There are many reasons why the water treatment plants do not function properly in Indigenous communities;

  • Being undersized for the community; lack of capacity to serve community needs
  • Poor or improper design
  • Other faulty equipment like sewage, power generators going out etc.
  • Use of inappropriate technology
  • Lack of funding or training to ensure the infrastructure is properly maintained
  • Inability to retain certified water plant operators

How does the system work?

Indigenous Services Canada provides the funds for designing, constructing, and maintaining systems in First Nations.

This funding is allocated through the Department of Indigenous Services Canada, and includes various phases of action in order to resolve a water issue:

  • feasibility studies
  • new system design work
  • interim repairs on existing systems
  • permanent repairs to existing infrastructure
  • construction of new infrastructure
  • improved training and monitoring

Health Canada helps to monitor the water quality (except for British Columbia as they handed it over to the First Nations Health Authority in 2013) and First Nations are responsible for getting the construction done and the maintenance in place.

In Conclusion…

Unfortunately, money does not seem to fix the problem. Bringing First Nations and other experts as partners will be step one into fixing this issue. All Canadians need to be aware of this issue and the severity of it. Canadians need to be vocal and join Indigenous champions like 15 year old Autumn Pelletier to make sure that all indigenous peoples are part of a national strategy that will work for everyone.

Join True North Aid in assisting northern communities with water that is clean and accessible. Click here to DONATE to our water fund.