A Resource Gap: Why First Nations Need Access and Authority Over Water

By Sophia Stavropolous

Indigenous communities in Canada have long faced a lack of access to safe drinking water. Since 2015, the Liberal federal government has invested $5.2 billion towards clean water and eliminated 119 long-term drinking water advisoriesin First Nations communities, yet many continue to have boil water advisories in place. 

To properly address this issue, it is imperative that the Government of Canada recognize Indigenous sovereignty over natural resources. Current investments for improving access to clean drinking water are insufficient as they often fail to address causal factors, such as sources of contamination. This oversight is made more severe by the fact that some sources of contamination are nearby economic development projects.

One of the foremost issues is that provinces have jurisdiction over public water systems, yet water systems on First Nations reserves are under federal authority. This multi-jurisdictional framework has continually resulted in First Nations communities depending on the federal government to provide aid. Unsurprisingly, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (2013) failed to recognize First Nation authority over water. 

Though plans to ensure access to safe drinking water can be costly, the physical and mental cost experienced by communities that have lived with boil water advisories for decades should trump the price tag. For example, in 2000, the water in Walkerton, Ontario, became contaminated with E. coli resulting in 2300 people becoming sick and seven people dying. In response, the Ontario government immediately called a public inquiry to discern what happened and implemented mechanisms to ensure it wouldn’t be repeated.

Arguably, the key lesson that can be learned from the Walkerton outbreak is that when dealing with non-Indigenous communities, governments act faster to respond to a crisis and attend to its causes. For Indigenous communities, the responses are usually laggard and contain unfulfilled promises. 

Several instances demonstrate the government’s poor track record in responding to similar crises on First Nations Reserves. Five years after Walkerton, the Kashechewan reserve, also in Ontario, was evacuated because their drinking water was contaminated with E. coli. In 2006, a report found that the drinking water for Pikangikum First Nations “posed an ‘urgent danger’ to public health,” with the potential for skin, ear, or gastrointestinal infections associated with its use. In 1999, uranium was found in the water supply for Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, who was put under a ‘do not consume’ orderuntil 2017. Long-term advisories continue to this day, with certain groups like the Neskantaga First Nation having a boil water advisory in place since 1995.

As these examples show, unsafe drinking water is not an inconvenience but a threat to life. The case of Walkerton was just one event that prompted a provincial change to water systems, but there are hundreds of First Nations communities that have experienced similar outbreaks with very little action taken.

A 2009 report by Health Canada argued in favour of establishing incident response teams in communities to rapidly respond to drinking-water-related health events. However, there is no evidence that such response teams were ever established on reserves.  

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority is an example of such a response team that oversees and provides safe drinking water to First Nation communities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. It does so by establishing regional standards for water protection in an effort to reduce individual band’s operational costs.

While these are steps forward, control over natural resources like water falls under sovereignty rights in international law– and Canada does not recognize Indigenous sovereignty. Thus, despite a shift in focus towards Canadian stewardship when protecting natural resources, this authority remains state-centered, perpetuating a colonial framework.

Examples of colonialist attitudes are prevalent in the debate surrounding the conceptualization of water. Those in favour of market environmentalism argue that classifying environmental goods as economic goods will enable efficient allocation of resources. With the increasing scarcity of safe drinking water, supporters of this theory argue this approach will allow for proper pricing mechanisms for water In contrast, opponents of the market approach are in favour of recognizing water as a human right because it is a necessity for life. By recognizing the right to water, they argue that this will restrict private sector involvement by placing the burden of equal access to water on states. 

This argument may be slightly idealistic. In 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declared that every person has the right to “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water.” Six years later, in 2008, the Canadian government voted against a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution that sought to recognize the right to waterHowever, lawyer and Osgoode Hall professor James Harnum argues that this right can be found in Canada’s Constitution, specifically in Section 7 of the Charter that protects, “the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”Consequently, Harnum asserts that access to safe drinking water in Indigenous communities is guaranteed to Canadians by the government.

It is a continuation of Canada’s colonial legacy that in such a developed country, there remain communities that do not have access to the most important necessity of life. 

These cases beg the question of whether water should be seen as a human right or a commodity. More importantly, are these definitions mutually exclusive? Does the marketization of water preclude access for vulnerable communities? Alternatively, does the right to water guarantee access for First Nations communities? These questions will shape future debates regarding access to safe drinking water. 

Enabling First Nations to protect their water and livelihood is not just necessary but overdue. Climate change poses additional risks to clean water and our relationship to it, whether it be due to growing scarcity or increased commodification (possibly as a result of scarcity), in addition to increased populations and a surge of those seeking climate refuge.

It is paramount that Indigenous communities ascertain authority over their water supply and be seen as independent governments for resource partnerships, especially as the market for natural resources grows.  

Sophia Stavropoulos is a Master of Public Policy candidate with a Collaborative Specialization in Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her research interests include environmental policy, Indigenous issues, and American cultural & political history.  Sophia holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences, Joint Honours in Political Science and History from the University of Ottawa.

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