First Nations and water

Troubled waters in First Nations communities

The northern Ontario community of Kashechewan made headlines all over Canada in 2005, when its poor water quality and unsanitary conditions forced the evacuation of 1,000 of its residents. The evacuation order raised awareness about a much larger problem: more than 80 First Nations communities are currently under “boiled water advisories” and 21 communities are deemed to be at high-risk for contamination. In Canada, contamination and inadequate water and sanitation services in First Nations communities are a real and present threat to human health and the environment.

The problem

First Nations communities fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Federal funding has been inadequate in addressing the communities’ urgent, immediate drinking water and wastewater treatment needs. At the same time, First Nations communities are in desperate need of more adequate infrastructure to deal with ongoing, long-term problems.

The threat of privatization

Private water companies are aggressively pursuing new “markets” in First Nations communities. Meanwhile, the federal government sees privatization as a quick fix for water crises in First Nations communities, and is therefore keen to facilitate public-private partnerships (P3s).

In May 2006, Terasen Utilities – a natural gas company that has become one of Canada’s more prominent water privateers – announced the creation of a new subsidiary, First Nations Utility Services. Within days of Terasen’s announcement, officials at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) said that they would pursue new partnerships with the private sector to help upgrade infrastructure in First Nations communities. They also announced that they would establish a program to train and certify water workers, with the support of both INAC and Terasen.

The Council of Canadians believes that by allowing corporations to control water services in First Nations communities through P3s, the federal government will be trading away:

  • Health and environmental concerns
  • Community employment
  • Local costs
  • Accountability to the community.

The way forward

The Assembly of First Nations has always argued that self-government is the key to unlocking the economic, social and political potential of First Nations. Indeed, greater control by and for First Nations is a necessary precondition for improvement of the appalling living conditions in First Nations communities.

The solution lies in developing a strategy that encourages:

  • Public funding for water services with local management.
  • Legislation to monitor drinking water quality and safety.

The Council of Canadians continues to campaign for safe, clean drinking water for everyone. We work nationally and internationally to educate and raise awareness about this issue.

Here are some of our recent submissions:

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The Council of Canadians raised concerns about drinking water and sanitation on First Nations reserves in Canada on May 23, 2011.

The Council of Canadians has raised several concerns with the Safe Drinking Water For First Nations Act (Bill S-11) in a submission to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on February 18, 2011.