For the overwhelming majority of Canadians, access to safe drinking water is something we take for granted. Any interruptions to the flow of clean water from our taps are rare and momentary, lasting a few hours or perhaps days at most.
It’s an entirely different story for a shocking number of First Nations.
As of last Fall, 110 First Nations were living under advisories to either boil their water or not drink it at all. The number is often much higher. In many cases, these advisories have been in place for years. In some instances, First Nations have lived a generation or longer without safe, reliable water.
Prime Minister Trudeau has made a public commitment to end this water insecurity by 2020. It’s a welcome and important promise. But unfortunately it’s one that the federal government is in very real danger of breaking.
The barriers to water justice – bureaucratic and financial – are set out in an important new study released by the David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians, and with advisers Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The report examines nine First Nations in Ontario that have been living with long-term drinking water advisories. It concludes that of these nine, only three are clearly on track to or have had drinking water advisories lifted any time soon.
Unfortunately, these examples are not unique. Despite significant new funding commitments by the federal government, more financial support is needed to deal with the backlog of rundown and broken water equipment resulting from years of chronic federal underfunding of First Nations water systems What’s more, as the report documents, the process for getting repairs and replacements approved and in place is needlessly lengthy and complicated, often taking at a minimum five to ten years from start to finish even for those First Nations prioritized in federal drinking water plans.
The previous government responded to the First Nations water crisis by arbitrarily imposing federal legislation to regulate the management of water systems by First Nations governments — without ensuring that they would have the resources they need.
The new report concludes that what is really needed is greater First Nations control over water protection and delivery and greater accountability from the federal government for how it funds and supports these services.