Addressing the Water Crisis for Indigenous Peoples

By: Ertiana Rrokaj

Water is our most precious natural resource. Vital to our existence, it is shared by all and, therefore, must be protected and managed responsibly to be preserved for our own use and for the use of future generations. Canada is fortunate to have an abundance of water, being endowed with one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, the third-largest renewable freshwater supply in the world (7 percent), and the second-largest per capita water supply among developed countries (103,899 m3 per person). Despite this great resource endowment, historical inequities regarding access to safe drinking water persist even today. Indigenous communities on First Nations reserves continue to be impacted by poor water infrastructure. As of April 2022, there remain 34 long-term drinking water advisories in 29 communities and 29 short-term advisories.

The federal government is committed to ensuring that all First Nations communities have access to safe drinking water. In December 2019, Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to the Minister of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) outlined the priorities that he expects the minister and his team to address. The first priority is the elimination of all long-term drinking water advisories (DWA) on reserve by 31 March, 2021. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government was not able to achieve this commitment in time. However, since 2019, the government has announced that to address infrastructure needs to end long-term DWAs on reserves, it would invest $739 million over five years, starting in 2019-2020, with $184.9 million per year, ongoing, provide $1.04 billion over two years for the “First Nations Water and Wastewater Enhanced Program” for planning, procurement, and construction of water capital infrastructure, and more recently, proposed to provide ISC with an additional $247 million to support water and wastewater infrastructure on reserve.

The safeguarding and sustainable management of our water resources benefit communities who are impacted by natural disasters, but water protection also benefits individuals who derive cultural or spiritual value from water bodies. The Government of Canada is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, which includes the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This can only be accomplished by returning water rights to Indigenous Peoples.

The legislative and policy landscape on safe drinking water for Indigenous Peoples remains fragmented. This complex issue includes challenges of source-water protection, which requires intergovernmental cooperation with the Provinces since watersheds extend beyond reserve boundaries. The federal government lacks the necessary legislation to target source-water protection, and this, in turn, causes Indigenous water traditions and health to be impacted.

More effective legislation should be developed to specifically detail the obligations of the federal government to address DWAs on reserve, with First Nations as equal partners. Legislation should include transparent financial commitments for operations and maintenance, and incorporate source-water protection, as well as a multi-barrier approach to preventing water contamination, as a primary objective in addressing long-term DWAs.

Other jurisdictions provide options to address this issue. First, from the United States and the experience of the Navajo Nation in establishing their own Environmental Protection Agency, there are benefits to granting more autonomy to Indigenous Peoples in their pursuit of self-governance. Canada can develop a First Nations Drinking Water Council or Commission that could be responsible for managing all First Nations drinking water systems. Second, from Australia, there are benefits to administering drinking water services for Indigenous Peoples by considering their communities as small rural villages and towns. DWAs are a common concern for small drinking water systems, with rural and remote locations being particularly at risk. A study reports that Indigenous reserves were more likely to experience DWAs than villages of similar populations and sizes in the same geographic location, which indicates that Provinces have a better capacity to deliver drinking water services to small rural communities. The study also finds that DWAs are responded to and resolved faster for non-Indigenous communities, which alludes to a more organized jurisdictional response from the overseeing agency, better-trained operators, and more robust systems design.

Following the Australian approach, there are benefits to extending the responsibility of overseeing drinking water systems for Indigenous communities to the Provinces, provided that Provinces are financially compensated. It is imperative, however, that First Nations be consulted on this issue because, as is the concern in Australia, the policy of administering Indigenous communities as small rural villages has caused the residents to be less engaged and less willing to self-govern. Adapting these models to the Canadian context requires greater consideration regarding Indigenous Peoples’ engagement and self-determination. Nevertheless, Canada can learn from these experiences and incorporate contingency plans to avoid similar negative outcomes while meeting its obligations to Indigenous Peoples.

Ertiana Rrokaj is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science and Master of Applied Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Toronto. She is currently working as a Statistical Analyst with the Analytics and Evidence Branch at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. Her public policy interests include environmental and climate change policy, Indigenous policy and justice. 

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