Water is sacred. We are made of water. It is our connection, our medicine. Water is life. It must be guarded. It must be respected. But most of all, it must be protected.
Water is “Nibi” in the Anishinaabemowin language. Nibi is a gift. It is one that most Canadians always have at their fingertips: to make coffee, brush their teeth or bathe their kids. But for some Métis, Inuit and First Nations on reserve, clean water is a worry.
Canada has the third largest freshwater reserves in the world, yet a number of Indigenous communities still struggle with access to clean water. Many First Nation reserves have been under a boil water advisory at one time or another, some for over 20 years. It may not sound difficult to deal with, but what does this really mean?
There are three types of water advisories:
1. Boil-water advisories usually indicate that water is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses. They require water to be brought to a rolling boil for at least a minute, and then cooled before drinking or otherwise consuming.
2. Do-not-consume advisories are used when water is contaminated with substances that cannot be removed through boiling (lead, for example). This water cannot be ingested, but it can be used by adults and older children for bathing.
3. Do-not-use advisories can indicate that the water contains chemicals or toxins that are harmful through any skin contact. Such water cannot be used for any reason.
Today, there are 33 long-term drinking water advisories in 28 communities. While 132 water advisories have been lifted since November 2015, the lifted advisories can unfortunately be cyclical by nature. Common issues include: difficulty procuring parts for water-treatment plants, lack of funding for operations and maintenance (O&M) to sustain them, and a lack of knowledgeable operators. In addition, some homes are not connected to the water treatment plants.
The lack of infrastructure and roads to reserves creates the biggest barrier to clean water. Many are only accessible by plane, boat or ice roads. In many cases, government grants for water treatment facilities are readily given, but no long term funding is provided to support them.
The lengths to which Indigenous people must go to have daily access to clean water are often time consuming, arduous, costly and sometimes dangerous. To supply their communities with water, some have to travel many miles with plastic jugs to gather it from the lakes.
For some reserves, clean water can only be obtained by boat in the summer. During winter months, the options are either an all-terrain vehicle with a sled attached, or the expensive alternative: flown in. For the communities in the north, bottled water is flown in at a cost of $40-$90 for a 20-bottle case of water.
Despite the current barriers, there are some success stories. Hope remains for the future.
In Osoyoos, B.C., the ancestral home of the Syilx First Nations people, several companies are currently working with the Syilx First Nations and the Okanagan Indian Band to create the first Indigenous owned and operated water utility in Canada.
The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority, a non-profit utility, is working with First Nation reserves in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to ensure greater control over water treatment processes.
With the help of a utility company, First Nation reserves can use government funding in a way that allows for greater sustainability. They are free to allocate their budgets as they see fit. For example, to ensure pay equity for Indigenous operators, who are often underpaid compared to municipal employees. Or for infrastructure, maintenance or expansion if needed.
Cooperation between the utility companies and reserves means they can cultivate, develop and train their own technical and managerial teams among community members—men as well as women. This gives the reserves the water sovereignty they deserve.
The Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, is the brightest success of all reserve water plant projects. As of last year, the community opened a new water treatment facility and system. All of the homes are now connected to the water treatment plant.
The issue remains with the quality or lack of infrastructure and roads. The removal of this barrier was the key to the community having that which we sometimes take for granted.
It’s encouraging to see the results of many years of persistence and hard work pay off, but where do we go from here?
How can we help to have all Métis, Inuit and First Nation reserves on par with the rest of Canada?
Here are just a few ideas to ensure there will be clean drinking water for all Indigenous people in the future.
Education is key.
Educate others, and educate yourselves about the types of water insecurities that Indigenous communities face every single day.
Contact the communities or reserves in your surrounding areas; ask how you can help.
A great example is Sephora and the Indigenous owned beauty company Cheekbone who have partnered up for the month of June. A percentage of the sales of special beauty products will be donated to Water First, a non-profit organization that works with Indigenous Advisory Council members and other community partners on reserve.
In my hope for all of Canada, I see lakes, rivers and pools of clean water. I see all of the Creator’s creatures, from bees to humans, thriving—because we protect and have respect for all that the water gives us. Nibi is life. Can you be an Anishinaabe Nibikwe, water protector for Nidakiinan, our land?
Chi Miigwetch, Big thanks
We Are All Connected.
- What lifting boil-water advisories solves — and what it doesn’t (TVO)
- Addressing Water Advisories in Indigenous Communities with Student-Led Initiative, Nibi (Telfer, University of Ottawa)
- Cheekbone Beauty, Sephora Canada, and Sid Lee team up to raise awareness about the water crisis in Indigenous communities in Canada, donating sales to Water First (Cision)
- The water crisis in Indigenous communities in Canada is unacceptable (Water First)
- Water First & Growing Roots (True North Aid)
- The Water Crisis in Canada’s First Nations Communities (ArcGIS StoryMaps)