Unpacking Equity: Ending Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations Communities

Unpacking Equity Series Banner (1) copyUnpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Gender, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (GDPP) at the School of Public Policy and Governance. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the GDPP.

by Sanya Ramnauth

Everyone in Canada should have access to clean and safe drinking water. Sadly, many of Canada’s First Nations have been denied this fundamental human right. Inadequate funding over several decades has led to contaminated and undrinkable source water in over 297 First Nations across Canada. Unlike municipalities in Canada, where drinking water is protected by provincial legislation and enforceable drinking water standards, there is no binding federal standard that holds anyone accountable for the provision of clean and safe drinking water in First Nations. This leaves First Nations drinking water in a regulatory void, with unsafe drinking water that that the federal government is grappling to address.

What is a Drinking Water Advisory?

Drinking Water Advisories (DWAs) are issued to warn people not to drink water that may be unsafe or is known not to be safe. Depending on what type of water treatment plant a particular reserve uses, a DWA could affect one building or a whole community. DWAs might be issued for many reasons, such as breaks in water lines, equipment malfunctions and/or failures, poor filtration and disinfection during treatment, a lack of trained treatment plant operators, or insufficient testing of the water supply. The federal government issues three types of DWAs: Boil Water Advisories, Do Not Consume advisories and Do Not Use advisories. Users of water systems under boil water advisories are advised to boil their water for at least one minute before they drink the water, or use it for other purposes such as cooking or brushing their teeth. Users of water systems under Do Not Consume and Do Not Use advisories are strongly recommended to not consume the water, with the latter advisory issued when exposure to the water in any form could pose health concerns.

How are DWAs Issued and Solved?

When a potential concern regarding water quality is identified, the Canadian government will send in an Environmental Health Officer to collect water samples, or the “First Nations stakeholders” will advise the chief and the band council. Under the typical federal process to address DWAs, First Nations seeking to update or upgrade their drinking water system must obtain base funding and preliminary project approval from the federal government, and complete a feasibility study (which usually requires hiring an expert consultant). The project then goes through a detailed design stage and must receive effective project approval before construction can begin. Many First Nations are remote and accessible by air or winter road only, so seasonal delays are common for construction projects.

Current Status

The Government of Canada is currently working with First Nations communities to end long-term (greater than one year) drinking water advisories. Additionally, they are exploring ways to improve water infrastructure on reserves to ensure short-term advisories do not become long-term. To achieve its goal, the Government has committed $1.8 billion in funding, plus an additional $172.6 million in its latest budget. The Prime Minister has promised that all long-term advisories will be lifted by March 2021.

Key Considerations

Many communities face the challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified water plant operators. The Circuit Rider Training Program – which provides hands-on training in plant operations, services, and maintenance – was created to address this issue on reserves. However, it funds only 80 per cent of plant operations and management costs, making it alone insufficient to retain qualified water treatment operators.

Complicating things further, remote First Nation communities lack road access. The delivery of essential capital equipment is dependent on the season, and in some cases, materials can only reach communities via winter roads. Water testing is also regularly delayed, as Environment Health Officers do not visit frequently to collect samples.

Shifting priorities can also be an issue. First Nations communities can face a litany of problems, including overcrowded housing, mental health challenges, and forest fires. These occurrences alter community and government priorities and also highlight the need for an holistic approach to delivering clean drinking water. Drinking water is a crucial component of economic and social development. Compartmentalizing Indigenous policy issues limits the scope of projects, and risks denying First Nations communities the opportunity to flourish on their own terms.

The Road Ahead

Some progress has been made so far – in 2018 alone, there has been a decrease in the number of DWAs on First Nations reserves. There have been some issues: for example, significant delays to the feasibility studies or constructions plans continue to impede several communities’ access to clean and safe drinking water. However, despite the difficulties, the Canadian government and multiple stakeholders remain optimistic that all DWAs will be lifted by March 2021. While 2021 and “a sooner-rather-than-later” mindset is the current approach of the federal government, there is something to be said for how timelines can result in broken promises. Perhaps it would have been best to provide a later timeframe, or none, to ensure that the drinking water problem is not addressed in isolation, but with the bigger picture and long-term sustainability at front-of-mind.

Sanya Ramnauth is a 2019 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and political science from McGill University. Her policy interests include foreign policy, international development, and gender issues within public policy.