Palmater: First Nations’ water problems a crisis of Canada’s own making

In a recent and hard-hitting article in Policy Options, Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer from Eel River Bar First Nation, author, activist and Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, writes about the water crisis many First Nations face, saying it’s a crisis that is “entirely of Canada’s own making.”

She points out that “400 of 618 First Nations were under at least one water advisory between 2004 and 2014. A recent CBC investigation revealed that 180 homes in Garden Hill First Nation, Manitoba, lack running water and indoor plumbing. Some of the residents don’t have central heating or power either.”

She asks: “How many Canadians would settle for water infected with fecal matter, sewers backing up into their bathtubs or being able to bathe only once a week due to lack of access to water? In all likelihood, if this were happening in any Canadian municipality on the same scale as in First Nations, a state of emergency would be declared and all resources would be brought to bear to address the crisis.”

So how did it get to this point? The answer, she says, comes from the Constitution Act of 1867. “The federal government assumed legal responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867,” she explains.

“[The federal government] can’t spend decades controlling First Nations and then claim the right to ignore some constitutional obligations because they cost too much. The federal government is legally responsible for infrastructure on-reserve, and its failure to uphold these legal obligations is a significant liability on its part — and a real health crisis for First Nations,” Palmater states.

The Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project were on the front lines of the fight for the human right to water at the United Nations. In July 2010, the UN passed the human rights to water and sanitation, confirming that these basic life necessities must be available to all.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch, an international, independent human rights organization, released a report saying Canada was violating people’s rights by not addressing the lack of safe, clean water in First Nations. Some First Nations have had drinking water advisories in place for as long as 20 years.

That same year, the CBC reported that First Nations representatives from Shoal Lake 40, Neskantaga and Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek) First Nations went to Geneva, Switzerland to speak directly to the UN about their lack of access to safe water.

To remedy this, Palmater says a national state of emergency should be declared and “a tripartite emergency measures team” established. “This issue must be treated like the public health crisis that it is,” she says. “Because the health that is at risk is that of First Nations people, First Nations have to be at the forefront of the emergency plan to address the situation. Every resource should be brought to bear to get running water and sewer service to those First Nations without them, and to ensure safe water for those who have running water. There is no reason why Canada, the provinces and First Nations cannot lead an emergency plan to have this done within 18 to 24 months. If Trudeau can find $7 billion (plus operating and maintenance costs) to buy a pipeline, he can find the same amount to ensure that First Nations have access to clean water and sanitation. This is a basic human right.”

First Nations’ drinking water systems have endured a patchwork of provincial and federal oversight and chronic underfunding.

Maude Barlow, Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, recounts in her book Boiling Point; Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse and Canada’s Water Crisis, “during the 2015 federal election, Justin Trudeau promised to end the crisis of tainted water on First Nations with five years. “A Canadian government led by me will address this as a top priority because it’s not right in a country like Canada. This has gone on far too long,” he said.

Four years later it is clear there has been little movement and the crisis is still very real for many First Nations. Tomorrow – March 22 – is World Water Day. The Council of Canadians is calling on everyone to deliver a clear message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Everyone has the right to safe drinking water – it’s time to end all drinking water advisories in First Nations for good.

Take action! Send your letter to Prime Minister Trudeau now.