Water crisis in Indigenous communities


Lack of clean water in Indigenous communities across Canada.

Last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to invest 1.8 billion dollars into solving the water crisis affecting indigenous reserves across Canada. At the time of his announcement, there were 156 water advisories affecting 110 communities across the country, meaning 20,000 indigenous Canadians did not have access to clean water. Indigenous Affairs released a publication that stated that 18 advisories have been lifted since November 2015. However, 12 have been added. This means that there are still 150 water advisories in effect today, and the number is in constant fluctuation. The people of Shoal Lake, Ontario have not been able to drink the water from their treatment plant in 19 years. The water and air of the Aamjiwnaang First Nations of Sarnia, Ontario have reached a level of contamination such that that they have experienced endocrine disruption; one boy is born for every two girls.

The David Suzuki Foundation published a report in February of this year in response to a study conducted concerning the water safety of Ontario reserves, where the majority of the water advisories are in place. Suzuki analyzed nine reserves as a means to assess how the government’s pledge was holding up. He found that only three reserves were on track to having their water ban lifted or had the lift removed. Meanwhile, three reserves’ water treatment plants were in the process of being improved, but Suzuki was unsure whether the water ban would be lifted within the five-year time limit. He deduced that the other three reserves were highly unlikely to have their bans removed within Trudeau’s five-year mark. Extrapolating these numbers out to the larger population, 60% of reserves with current water advisories will most likely still be facing these issues in 2021, and 12,000Canadians would still be without clean water. Suzuki’s findings show that Canada is not on track to reach the goal Prime Minister Trudeau had promised.

The reason for the water crisis on reserves is multi-fold. Water treatment plants, regardless of whether they are located on or off a reserve, mostly use chlorine to treat the water and make it safe. However, the chlorine can react with dissolved organic substances in the water to create trihalmethanes, a known carcinogen. Normally, the water is filtered in advance of the chlorine process to remove the organic products to prevent the trihalmethanes from forming. However, water treatment facilities onreserves do not get enough funding to be able to function at a quality level, resulting in many plants that are poorly designed, not tested frequently, or maintained to a degree that would prevent these carcinogens from occurring. Not to mention, when this pre-filtration process is not happening, many other toxins, such as iron or manganese, are getting into the water and are present at high levels. Furthermore, an average water facility in Ontario is designed to produce 450 litres per resident per day, yet,  reserve water systems are designed to only produce 180 litres per resident per day. Therefore, due to lack of funding, not only are these treatment plants not performing up to standard, they are built to fail the community in the first place.

From a bureaucratic standpoint, it is difficult for indigenous people to solve the water crisis. Water is a municipal issue, so if a water treatment facility in a city does not perform adequately, then the municipality would be in charge of devising a solution. Alternatively, water on the reserves falls under the federal government. Many Indigenous people believe this creates a detachment issue because the federal government is not present on the reserve the way a mayor is in a city. Similarly, many indigenous people feel they are not heard in the process of solving the water crisis. It on average takes about 10 years from the time that the problem is discovered to the time that the water is safe to drink due in large part to government hurdles faced frequently by indigenous communities. For instance, in order to have the water plant examined and new plans drawn up, someone must be paid to do so. While this money is technically supposed to come federally, communities often grow impatient and try to source out their own funds, which can be astronomically high. If and when the money finally does come from the government, after plans have been approved (which can take years), it is often not enough to successfully solve the problem long term, sending the community right back into the advisory zone.

Not too far from St. Francis Xavier University on Chapel Island resides the Potlotek First Nations. There, the water runs red, yellow, and sometimes black. The Potlotek people cannot drink, bathe, or wash their clothes in the water even after it is boiled due to high levels of iron and manganese. Drinkable water must come from plastic bottles and the community must use special public showers and laundry facilities. Repairing the existing system would cost over $800,000, but an entire new plant is necessary for the growing population. However, plans for one are still in the design phase and have been since 2015, despite the water being on advisory since 2007. As we draw closer and closer to the Liberal Party deadline of 2021, it seems the Potlotek and many other communities across the country will enter the new decade as they did the previous one: without access to clean water.