Everyone in the world has a right to clean drinking water. Not just morally, but legally. On July 28th, 2010, the United Nations recognized access to clean water as a human right. They state that “the right to water entitles everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use”. Many of us have access to clean drinking water at the turn of a tap . This is not the case, however, for everyone who lives in Canada.
Who has access to clean water in Canada?
According to the Government of Canada, 39 First Nations are coping with 57 long-term boil water advisories across Canada. Water Today, an independent research company dedicated to reporting water advisories in Canada on a daily basis, has reported 76 water advisories for Ontario alone. 73 of which are ‘boil water’ advisories, and the remaining 3 are ‘do not consume’ advisories. Some of these advisories are new this year, others date back as far as 1995. While looking at the list, it is easy to see that these advisories impact marginalized communities, with the significant majority existing within Indigenous communities.
During the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate all long-term water advisories of First Nations by March 2021. Since then, more than $1.74 billion has been spent on water and wastewater projects by the federal government, but money is only part of the solution. There are still many outdated and restrictive policies in existence that reduce the amount of control Indigenous leaders, engineers and community members have over projects and infrastructure. This leaves some workers and residents to endure conditions that are rarely found in non-Indigenous communities.
Indigenous peoples depend on water for transportation, drinking, cleaning, as well as specific cultural practices and ceremonies. Clean water is also central to the habitat for the plants and animals that they gather as medicines and foods. As explained by the Assembly of First Nations, “all First Nations place a high importance on water, and practice sacred ceremonies to ensure waters are respected and that these water ceremonies are passed onto future generations”.
Let’s look at some case studies to put all of this information into context.
The Pollution of Deshkan Ziibi
Deshkan Ziibi, also known as Antler River or Thames River, is one of southern Ontario’s largest running rivers and London’s richest landmark. The river is 15,000 years old and is 273 km in length. Many Londoners enjoy the beauty of Deshkan Ziibi and the scenery surrounding the river, but many still have yet to learn about the pollution that too often enters the river. Whenever there is a big storm, or a sudden spring thaw, the sanitary systems of London, ON, become overwhelmed. This causes a rush of untreated or only partially-treated sewage into the river. This pollution damages the ecosystems in and around the river. Additionally, the river is on the same water table that some people draw their water from.
There are eight First Nations whose traditional territory overlaps with the watershed, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Bkejwanong Walpole Island First Nation, Caldwell First Nation, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, Munsee-Delaware Nation, Delaware Nation at Moraviantown and Oneida Nation of the Thames.
For example, Oneida Nation of the Thames was put under a boil water advisory in the fall of 2019, but those living there say there is an entire generation that has never experienced clean drinking water. The water distribution system on Oneida territory has failed to meet provincial standards dating back to 2006. Additionally, 18 years of water quality testing across Oneida First Nation sometimes shows striking levels of E. coli flowing from residential taps.
Whereas Oneida hasn’t had safe drinking water for at least 18 years, the neighbouring township of Southwold draws its water from Lake Erie and is fed by a treatment system that recieved a $176 million upgrade in 2018. The Government of Ontario claims to have invested in finding a solution, but Oneida has yet to receive any of the federal government’s high-profile funding to bring safe, clean drinking water to First Nations communities.
So you may be wondering, what is being done to resolve this issue? London is working on reducing sewage waste pollution by ripping up its old combined sewers and replacing them with separate systems for storm water and waste, but as of January 2020, there was still about 17 kilometers of combined sewers left across the city. There is still much work to be done. This is part of the solution, but there is still much to be done. In order for Oneida Nation of the Thames to have access to clean drinking water, they must have an operating water treatment facility. View the Call to Action section to learn more about organizations who advocate for clean water rights.
Restrictive and Outdated Policies
Since 2015, the Federal Government has pledged more than $2 billion dollars to address the water crisis in First Nations communities, and part of that strategy has been to build and upgrade water systems on reserves across Canada. The Tainted H2O project was a yearlong collaborative investigation into Canadian drinking water standards. The first year of the investigation included more than 120 reporters, editors, students, and faculty members from nine universities and 10 partner media companies. More have since joined. This investigation revealed that government policies and lack of oversight has led to flawed and incomplete work being done on First Nations. This has endangered the health of entire communities.
Findings from the Tainted H2O investigation concluded that First Nations communities have to navigate a time consuming and unnecessarily complex system in order to receive improvements to their infrastructure, such as water treatment plants. To receive funding, they must first complete feasibility studies and draft project proposals. These documents are then submitted to Indigenous Services Canada, where they are then added to a long line of applicants. The length of time it takes for applicants to be picked can age out the proposals and the studies that support them. The long wait also makes it more difficult to implement solutions that meet the current needs of the community and infrastructure. Once the proposal is picked, a nation will begin a tendering process that allows companies to bid on contracts for the design and construction. The government requires that nations work with the lowest bidder, rather than quality management. The company with the lowest cost often doesn’t have the trust of the community or put the needs of the community first.
The difficult system that First Nations communities must navigate to receive improvements to infrastructure can be traced back to the reserve system. Despite historic treaties outlining a nation to nation relationship, the Indian Act of 1876 forced First Nations into reserve lands, and put them under federal control by law.
For example, let’s look at Neskantaga First Nation, an Oji-Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. This community has been subject to the longest boil-water advisory in Canada, lasting over 25 years.
1993- Neskantaga water treatment plant is built
1995- Community is put under a boil water advisory. For years, the community tried to secure government funding to build a new water treatment plant with no success.
December 2015- Instead of granting a whole overhaul, the government greenlit upgrades to the plant.
June 2017- Neskantaga hires Kingdom Construction Ltd. (lowest bidder)
May 2018 - Work on water treatment plant to be complete.
February 2019- After a series of delays Neskantaga terminates contract with Kingdom Construction Ltd.
Today- Work on the community’s water treatment plant is still not finished, and the cost has nearly doubled.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has admitted that racism is embedded in some outdated federal policies that have deprived many First Nations of clean drinking water, and many others agree. In an interview with Global News, Dr. Anna Banerji, a medical doctor and faculty professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in Indigenous health said, “The roots cause of the boil-water advisories and lack of clean water for Indigenous Peoples is the systemic racism...We have an apartheid system that gives rights, privilege funding to one group of people differently than another group of people based on race”.
Furthermore, Indigenous knowledge systems are often overlooked in academia, leaving their voices unheard. Dr. Jeanette Armstrong, an associate professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan (UBCO) campus, shared a Syilx Okanagan perspective on systemic racism during a recent talk at UBCO. “These times of climate change, societal disease and diseases, we need Indigenous knowledge,” said Armstrong. She went on to explain that
“A general definition of Indigenous knowledge consists of those beliefs, assumptions, and understandings of non-western people developed through long-term associations with a specific place. Therefore, Indigenous knowledge is considered a second tier of knowledge, that is, below science. This is racist.”.
Armstrong is committed to pursuing an alternative academic approach to Indigenous environmental knowledge in her research and study. To learn more about her work, click here.
Call to Action
In October 2020, when asked about his promise to eliminate all long-term water advisories of First Nations by March 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not commit to meeting the deadline. He argued that travel restrictions related to COVID-19 have made it more difficult to reach the deadline and that the federal government was working to lift the remaining drinking water advisories “as soon as possible.”
The resolution of all long-term drinking water advisories and the decolonization of federal policies is paramount to ensuring all Canadian’s can have access to clean drinking water. Here are a few ways you can support clean water rights:
The right to clean water is a very big topic, and this blog has just scratched the surface. Now that you have a basic idea of what clean water rights are, and the problem at hand in Canada, you may now choose to conduct a more in depth analysis of the history behind clean water rights in Canada, and the communities that currently need support.
To learn more about recent findings in relation to the cleanliness of Canada’s water and the communities that are affected, monitor the Tainted H2O coverage by Concordia University.
Watch this short ATPN News report to learn more about the history behind the federal policies that prevent First Nations communities from receiving adequate funding and infrastructure repairs.
Learn from activists who work to raise awareness about clean water rights. Meet Autumn Peltier, a 15-year-old water activist from Wikwemikong First Nation. In 2019, Autumn addressed hundreds of international guests at UN headquarters where she urged the global community to respect the sacredness and importance of clean water. To learn more about Autumn Peltier and the work that she does, click here.
Read this document to learn more about the Deshkan Ziibi shared waters approach to water quality and quantity.
You can learn about communities near you that are under boil water advisories by visiting Water Today.
There is a good chance that the people around you may not be aware of these problems either. You can do your part to help raise awareness about clean water rights by engaging in conversations with your family and friends. Here are a few ways you can start a conversation within your own networks:
You can start a conversation by sharing resources. This may look like sending your friends this blog post, or this video of Autumn Peltier explaining the importance of clean water for all.
Trying to pick a movie to watch with the family? Turn on Autumn Peltier’s documentary titled The Water Walker. This documentary follows Autumn Peltier as she travels to the UN to preserve the future of Indigenous communities. Click here to learn more.
Another way to spark conversation is to watch videos about clean water rights with your family and friends. Watch this Ted Talk called ‘Why lakes and rivers should have the same right as humans’ by Water Protector Kelsey Leonard.
If you don’t feel like watching a video, try listening to a podcast with your family and friends. Here is a David Suzuki Podcast that features water keepers from around the world and how they protect, honour and share water.
You can also tune in to The London Environmental Network’s podcast episodes “The River (Part One)” and “The River (Part Two). This podcast interviews local water experts on the history, health, and future of Deshkan Ziibi (Antler / Thames River). Listen here.
There are organizations across Canada that advocate for clean water rights. You can support these organizations by donating money, volunteering your time, and raising awareness about the work that they do. Here are a few organizations to look into:
Antler River Rally - Antler River Rally is a volunteer group that organises clean-ups of the Thames River within the city of London, Ontario. They believe that a healthy river is the lifeblood of a strong community. To learn more about this organization, click here.
Water First - To date, Water First has collaborated with First Nations, Indigenous, and Metis communities in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Labrador to address water challenges through education and training. To learn more about this organization, click here.
Freshwater Alliance - The Freshwater Alliance is a national initiative that builds, unites and activates networks of freshwater champions to drive change and secure health waters for all. To learn more about this organization, click here.
While engaging in environmental advocacy, it is important to understand your relationship to the land, and the ways Indigenous communities connect with the land that often go unnoticed. To gain a better understanding of what honouring water looks like in action, read this article titled Honouring Water by the Assembly of First Nations.
To take immediate action, you can sign a petition that advocated for clean water rights for Indigenous communities. Here is one that you can look into:
- Assembly of First Nations: National Water Declaration
- Broken Promises: Why are some First Nations still without clean drinking water?
- Clean water, broken promises
- Ending long-term drinking water advisories
- First Nations communities suffer through tainted water crisis despite government promises
- Honouring Water
- How colonial systems have left some First Nations without drinking water
- Human Rights to Water and Sanitation
- Indigenous knowledge systems often overlooked in academia
- January’s record rain exposes London’s dirty sewage secret
- Oneida Nation of the Thames tap water different than neighbouring non-Indigenous communities
- Restoring and promoting the health of Deshkan Ziibi
- Tainted H2O
- The Thames River (Deshkan Ziibi) Shared Waters Approach to Water Quality and Quantity
- They’re in their 20s and have never had clean drinking water
- Trudeau won’t commit to ending boil-water advisories on First Nations by 2021
- Why some First Nations still don’t have clean drinking water -- despite Trudeau’s promise
- Working with First Nations to improve drinking water
This blog post was contributed by Maddy Hendriksen. Maddy is a Social Justice and Peace Studies Student at King's University College. For her term placement with the London Environmental Network, she is writing a series of blog posts about environmental justice topics of which this article is a part of, called Environmentalism in Action.
About the Environmentalism in Action Blog Series
Through the Environmentalism in Action blog series, the London Environmental Network aims to share information on social and environmental justice issues, highlight local case studies and local resources, and share ways individuals can continue to educate themselves and take action in their communities. The London Environmental Network acknowledges the impacts of colonization and Western environmentalism, and is committed to working in collaboration towards creating a community and city that is resilient, vibrant, and just for all.