The Attawapiskat First Nation Band Council has declared a state of emergency last week over concerns about water quality. This First Nation community has never had access to safe drinking water, and now residents are told to refrain from taking long showers or washing food, due to the dangerous levels of toxins in the water.
Speaking to CTV News, Adrian Sutherland, an Attawapiskat resident says “In this country there are thousands of Indigenous people that don’t have access to clean drinking water. Now we can’t even bathe in it? This is ridiculous.”
The water crisis in this Northern Ontario First Nations once again exposes the failure by the federal government to provide access to safe and clean water to First Nations. The Trudeau government has promised to end drinking water advisories in over 100 First Nations by 2021, but the solutions so far have stopped at short-term, Band-Aid fixes. In this case, Attawapiskat has never had safe drinking water, and instead of addressing this problem with long-term water infrastructure, Ottawa has opted to treat the water from a local lake by adding a large amount of chlorine. As a result, Attawapiskat tap water now poses serious health risks due to the high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs), toxic byproducts of disinfecting chemicals used in the process of treating water.
Council of Canadians supporters have been vocal in our support of safe, clean water and critical of the Liberal government for their failed promise to end drinking water advisories in First Nations. With your continued pressure, long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted in 85 First Nations as of July 2019, according to the latest report from the Indigenous Services Canada. However, more needs to be done as some communities have seen lifted drinking water advisories return after the government’s announcement.
In a recent Policy Options paper, Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmak lawyer, author, activist and Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, describes the many ways the federal government “plays shell games with reporting on water advisories”. In addition to discounting recinding lifted water advisories, “the federal website counts advisories only for First Nations south of 60, and it doesn’t track First Nations in BC and parts of Saskatchewan. Ottawa also doesn’t track homes and community buildings that are not connected to a public water system: in other words, communities or homes that don’t have access to running water don’t get included in the advisory counts.”
The United Nations has recognized access to water and sanitation as human rights in 2010. The failure to address the water crises in Attawapiskat and other First Nations is a violation of these rights and significantly undercuts the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation. The many crises facing residents of Attawapiskat, including youth suicide, housing, and now water, are emblematic of the many struggles plaguing First Nations across Canada. Pam Palmater reminds us, “The mould, water and housing crises are all problems created by the federal government’s chronic discriminatory underfunding — which continues despite the known impact on the health and lifespan of First Nations people.”
As we continue to demand an end to the water advisories in First Nations like Attawapiskat, we should all work towards returning land and self-governance back to First Nations and letting them build the long-term solutions they need. “First Nations’ jurisdiction to govern themselves must be recognized in a substantive way. Returning lands, waters and resources to First Nations, as well as addressing outstanding treaty obligations, would go a long way to ensuring that First Nations have sustainable governments,” says Pam Palmater.