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1 in 4 people living on a First Nations reserve may not have clean water

Up to 72,000 people in First Nations could have been affected by a drinking water advisory (DWA) at the end of 2016.1 This represents approximately one quarter of people living on a First Nations reserve.2

A new assessment of Health Canada and the First Nations Health Authority data shows the estimated number of people affected: 

  • Between 16,346 to 72,000 people did not have clean drinking water in First Nations where the information was available

  • 64 DWAs for water systems affecting up to 100 people

  • 26 DWAs for systems affecting 101 to 500 people

  • 9 DWAs for systems affecting 501 to 1000 people

  • 9 DWAs for systems affecting 1001 to 5000 people

  • 40, or nearly one quarter, of the DWAs were for systems for which the number of people impacted is unknown. Some of them were schools, health centres and community centres.

Calculated a different way, if the approximate populations for First Nations communities under a DWA are added together, an estimated 45,000 people could have been affected by a DWA at the beginning of  2017. (See second tab here.)

A precise number of people affected by DWAs in First Nations is very difficult to pinpoint for a variety of reasons. 

The Province reported, “Following the release of last month’s report, one of the contributors, Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui, analyzed government figures on more than 150 drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities in Canada. Her analysis showed as many as a quarter of First Nations people on reserves in Canada could be affected by drinking-water advisories. The precise number is hard to nail down, since exact population figures were not readily available for communities served by these water systems, many of which are small.”

The above numbers show information gaps and the need to better clarify how many people are affected by DWAs in First Nations.4 

Tap water photo

Photo of Running Tap Water, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Bradley Johnson

Outrageously long-term Drinking Water Advisories

The federal government recently released a statement reaffirming its commitment to its Budget 2016 promise of ending long-term drinking water advisories affecting INAC-funded public systems on-reserve within five years. 

Some DWAs have been in place for decades. Eleven DWAs in four First Nations – Neskantaga (ON), Shoal Lake No. 40 (ON) as well as Alexis Creek (BC) and Algonquine/Kitigan (QC) – have been in place since 1995, 1997 and 1999, respectively.

Nearly half of the DWAs have been in place for more than five years. (4) CBC also recently reported that 71 DWAs in First Nations were more than a year old.

There has not been measurable change in years; the number of drinking water advisories remains at roughly the same level as in 2010. (See the third tab here.) 

A review of the long-term advisories (in place for one year or more) versus the short-term advisories (in place for less than a year) raises questions about whether the dates set for the DWAs show the full picture.. For example, the federal government’s listings for Curve Lake First Nation (Ontario) states that the DWAs were set in 2016. However, the Kawartha Promoter notes that Curve Lake First Nation had already been living under an extended boil water advisory even before 2015. The listing for Kashechewan (Ontario) shows that the date was set in December 2016, but water issues in the First Nation are well documented, dating as far back as 2005. The same is true for Potlotek First Nation (Nova Scotia), where CBC reported issues with drinking water in 2014. 

Trudeau government continues Harper’s legacy of gutted freshwater laws

On top of these long-standing DWAs, the Trudeau government has approved projects that threaten waterways such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain and Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipelines, the Site C mega-dam in northeastern B.C. and TransCanada’s NOVA Gas pipeline, which will transport fracked gas from northeastern B.C. to Alberta, all within the last eight months.

The Navigation Protection Act (NPA) still does not protect 99% of lakes and rivers in Canada and Indigenous communities. The changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) that cancelled 3000 environmental assessments in 2012 are still in place.

The Trudeau government launched reviews on gutted water and environmental laws last fall. The Standing Committee on Transport and the CEAA review panel tasked with overseeing the reviews are expected to table recommendations in the next two weeks. It is expected that public comments will be accepted on the recommendations and on the draft legislation that the Trudeau government is expected to release in the fall. Meanwhile the Trudeau government continues to give the green light to more projects that threaten lakes, rivers and groundwater.

The report Every Lake, Every River: Restoring the Navigable Waters Protection Act shows how the gutting of the act is allowing the federal government to approve industrial projects, including the Energy East pipeline, the Keeyask Dam and the Bipole Transmission Line in Manitoba, and the Ajax Mine in British Columbia, with little or no scrutiny under the NPA.

The Trans Mountain pipeline, which threatens 1,309 waterways in Alberta and B.C., was also approved under the gutted NPA and CEAA. The Coldwater Indian Band was given one day’s notice that the pipeline could impact the community’s drinking water before the Trudeau government gave the project the green light. One of the 157 conditions was to conduct a hydrogeological study at Coldwater, but Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna called for this after its approval of the pipeline. A strengthened CEAA must require hydrogeological studies as part of project assessments, and approval should not be given if the project puts water sources at risk.

In her new book, Boiling Point Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis, Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow calls for these freshwater laws to be reinstated and improved, and that “all policy and strategy should be based on the fundamental principles of water sustainability, water justice and public trust while also recognizing the special and inherent and treaty rights of First Nations.”

Recommendations to end the water crisis in First Nations

In 2016, the Trudeau government allocated $1.8 billion over five years to help First Nations build new on-reserve water infrastructure in its first budget. But this is not enough. In 2011, a government study estimated that $889 million is needed every year for First Nations water and wastewater facilities, including projected operating and maintenance costs.

The recent report, Glass half empty? Year 1 progress toward resolving drinking water advisories in nine First Nations in Ontario, released by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians, warned that the federal government will not meet its commitment to end all drinking water advisories affecting First Nations within its five year commitment if it does not make bold changes to current processes. 

The report revealed fundamental flaws in how the federal government fulfills its responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in First Nations, including a highly complex funding process full of loopholes, gaps and delays; a lack of transparency and accountability in federal monitoring of progress; and the lack of a regulatory framework to govern drinking water for First Nations.

The report calls on the Trudeau government to implement 12 recommendations including:

  • Increasing funding

  • Increasing federal transparency and reporting of budget spending and progress toward ending long-term DWAs in First Nations

  • Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly free, prior and informed consent for laws and regulations related to First Nations water

  • Implementing the UN-recognized human right to clean drinking water and sanitation endorsed by Canada.

  • Working with First Nations to streamline and simplify the process for investments in water infrastructure

The Trudeau government will be tabling its second budget on World Water Day, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. All eyes are on the Trudeau government to see if it begins to make the bold changes needed to fulfil its promise of ending DWAs within the four years remaining in its promised timeline and restoring and enhancing much needed freshwater protections.


(1) The number of DWAs for First Nations listed on the website are as of December 31, 2016. Note that there are roughly 75 DWAs for systems with infrastructure financially supported by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).The DWAs for First Nations in British Columbia are maintained by First Nations Health Authority and are as of January 31, 2016. The First Nations Health Authority notes “The population estimates listed for each water system under a drinking water advisory are provided as broad categories since population numbers can fluctuate. Drinking Water Advisories that are in community and public water systems that are listed under a drinking water advisory may only impact a portion of the community (a community can have more than one water system) and therefore would not necessarily be in place for the entire community. Most of the advisories are in systems that have 5-14 connections. Using the categories to estimate population will provide a very conservative estimate.” The DWAs in First Nations within the Saskatoon Tribal Council are not included. 27 DWAs were revoked during the time of reporting, so these statistics have been excluded from the totals. Conversations with representatives from Health Canada, the First Nations Health Authority, the Assembly of First Nations and First Nations such as Shoal Lake #40 First Nation and Curve Lake First Nation were had about the number of people affected by DWAs while doing the research and writing for this article. 

(2) According to Statistics Canada, in 2011:

  • 1,400,685 people had an Aboriginal identity, representing 4.3% of the total Canadian population.

  • 859,970 people identified as First Nations and over one-third (38% or 328,445) of all First Nations people lived on a reserve.

(3) Health Canada stated that ranges (0-100, etc.) were used because people in First Nations were transient meaning some people leave or live there for only part of the year. However, Health Canada does have population figures that they base the ranges on and it is important to make that data public. While it is possible there is more than one water system in a community, there are also many communities that only have one water system and do not have another system to rely on for water like in urban centres. It was unclear from the government data which had alternate water systems. 

(4) 78 out of 148 Drinking Water Advisories have been in place since 2011 or before.