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International Aid Agency steps in to help community in … Canada?

The Canadian arm of the Red Cross, an international aid organization, announced on Wednesday that they would step in and provide short-term help to the First Nation community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario.

About a month ago, Chief Theresa Spence of the community declared a state of an emergency and band leaders have asked the federal government to evacuate the community before the cold weather worsens.

There are families living in shacks without running water, proper sanitation or electricity. NDP MP Charlie Angus visited the community earlier this month and wrote an article in the Huffington Post about the appalling conditions. He also documented his trip in a video which notes that there are 19 families in shacks without electricity or running water. There are also 122 families in condemned houses and 35 families in houses needing serious repair.

The Cree First Nation of Attawapiskat has approximately 1,200 people living on reserve and is more than 600 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

ATPN has reported that “Many residents, including the elderly and children, are using the toilet in pails that are then dumped into ditches.” To learn more, listen to The Friday Edition on Attawapiskat Housing.

About a month after Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan finally announced today that he would be sending staff to assess the situation in Attawapiskat. The department has committed $500, 000 to build 5 houses but is still dragging its heels to assist in finding long-term solutions for the community.

NDP MP Charlie Angus has described Attawapiskat as a problem of “chronic underfunding and systemic negligence.” This “chronic underfunding and systemic negligence” is starkly apparent in communities across the country with relation to housing, health , water and sanitation services and other critical areas.

What is the situation of water and sanitation on First Nation reserves?

The appalling conditions of Attawapiskat are shamefully common throughout Canada. The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems released in July noted that of the 807 water systems inspected for the study:

  • 314 (39%) are categorized as high overall risk
  • 278 (34%) are categorized as medium overall risk
  • 215 (27%) are categorized as low overall risk.

Of the 532 wastewater systems inspected:

  • 72 (14%) are categorized as high overall risk
  • 272 (51%) are categorized as medium overall risk
  • 188 (35%) are categorized as low overall risk.

How long have First Nations reserves been under water advisories?

A Health Canada document obtained under an Access to Information request reveals the disgraceful length in which some communities have remained under water advisories:

  • 40% of the communities had been under water advisories for 4-10 years (47 out of 117 communities)
  • 6 of these communities had been under water advisories for over 10 years (some dating back as far as 1995 and 1999)

This information is based on information gathered on December 31st, 2010 at which time there were 117 communities under water advisories. The latest count of water advisories by Health Canada is from October 31st, 2011 at 124 communities. The number of water advisories issued by Health Canada consistently hovers around 100 communities.

The Need for Funding

The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems report outlined that $4.7 billion was needed to include future servicing and bringing systems to meet INAC’s Protocol. The National Roll-Up Report noted that: “An analysis was completed for each community to evaluate future servicing alternatives for a 10-year design period. The analysis considers a variety of alternatives, including centralised systems (expanding existing systems, developing new systems, connecting to nearby municipal systems through a Municipal Type Agreement) and the use of decentralised systems (individual wells and septic systems) as appropriate for each community…

Nationally, the capital cost associated with this servicing is $4.7 billion or approximately $29,600 per connection. The new servicing cost includes the cost of the upgrades necessary for systems to meet INAC’s Protocol, if applicable (i.e. for servicing alternatives that include continued use of the existing system).”

Canada’s Legal Obligations on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

On July 28, 2010, 122 countries voted to pass a resolution at the UN General Assembly recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. On September 23, 2011, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a resolution (A/HRC/18/L.1) on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation and set out clear obligations for governments. The resolution calls upon governments to:

  • develop comprehensive plans and strategies, including the definition of responsibilities for all water and sanitation sector actors, to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation for all
  • ensure full transparency of the monitoring and assessment of the implementation of plans of action, projects and programmes in the sectors of water and sanitation and to ensure, including in the planning process, the free, effective, meaningful and non-discriminatory participation of all people and communities concerned, particularly people living in disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable situations;
  • ensure financing to the maximum of available resources in order to implement all the necessary measures to ensure that water and sanitation systems are sustainable and that services are affordable for everyone, including resources for regulatory activities, operation and maintenance and the institutional and managerial structure
  • provide for a framework of accountability that provides for adequate monitoring mechanisms and legal remedies

Canada has also ratified and endorsed several conventions that outline clear obligations on the human right to water and sanitation including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

New Legislation

Liberal Leader Bob Rae introduced a motion last Thursday asking that First Nations’ communities have access to clean, running water in their homes “no later than the spring of 2012.” There was a four hour debate including Canada’s obligations on the right to water under international law. The motion received all party support.

The Tuesday before the motion, Ecojustice, gave the federal government an ‘F’ grade in its government report card on drinking water, highlighting that “No progress has been made on the legislative front and there has been little improvement in the quality of water for First Nations communities.”

Bill S-11, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, died on the order paper on March 25, 2011, when Stephen Harper was found to be in contempt of Parliament and the government dissolved. The Act, while commendable in its intent, raised serious concerns for First Nations and social justice, environmental and labour organizations. First, Bill S-11 did not stipulate funding commitments and funding roles for the three government departments responsible for water on First Nation reserves (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Health Canada and Environment Canada). With the lack of funding commitments, trends toward privatization in Canada will force some communities to privatize their water systems. In developing Bill S-11 many First Nation communities were not consulted and the bill did not require consultation in developing regulations on safe drinking water for First Nation communities. Bill S-11 also does not require consultation with First Nation communities in developing regulations. In fact, a couple of clauses affirm that the regulations made under Bill S-11 take precedence over aboriginal and treaty rights and First Nation laws or by-laws. The Council of Canadians expressed these concerns in a written submission to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on February 18, 2011. To read the submission, click here.

While government action on drinking water and sanitation for First Nation communities is critical, it is imperative that the upcoming legislation address the concerns of Bill S-11 from First Nations and other groups. The deadline of the spring 2012 is a critical time because funding under the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan ends March 31, 2012. So it is crucial that the upcoming legislation must adhere to the UN HRC resolution by ensuring “financing to the maximum of available resources,” “free, effective, meaningful and non-discriminatory participation of all people and communities concerned” as well as other demands from First Nation governments.