Indigenous Communities in Canada Still Await Safe Drinking Water

NORTH SPIRIT LAKE FIRST NATION, Ontario — There isn’t enough bottled water to go everywhere. Ida Rae kept an expensive vase in her bedroom that she rarely used to make milk for her granddaughter.

Everyone else in the house Rae, 75, shares with five people has had to drink water from the kitchen faucet – even though the tap water has made locals sick.

For years, and in some cases decades, Canada has failed to provide safe drinking water to many of its indigenous communities, including North Spirit Lake, a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario. , where boiling water has been recommended almost continuously since 2001.

Degraded infrastructure at water plants and a lack of trained operators, for many of the reserves, make the treated water undrinkable. Since 1995, more than 250 First Nations have been affected, according to court records.

As a result, the natives fell ill with gastrointestinal infections, respiratory illnesses and severe rashes, some of whom were hospitalized. Boiling water has become a daily inconvenience and entire communities, already struggling with chronic financial hardship, have to rely on expensive shipments of bottled water.

The wait for the reliable clean water promised by the Canadian government dates back to 1977, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was in office.

With a government investment of C$2.7 billion, or nearly US$2 billion, since 2016, the number of boil water recommendations in effect at any given time has decreased significantly. and a 2021 class-action settlement that forces the government to step up investment.

But when old advice is removed, new advice emerges. Despite Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 election promise to scrap the boil water advice within five yearsthey remain on 27 sanctuaries across Canada, each lasting at least a year and nearly half exceeding 10 reserves.

“We were the first peoples, the original inhabitants of the country, and we couldn’t have drinking water,” said Derek Fox, leader of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an association of 49 first nations in Ontario. clean. long-term boiled water advice. “We signed the treaty. Our ancestors did everything they thought was right to make sure this didn’t happen.”

Last year, Canada’s federal court approved the settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by three indigenous communities alleging the government breach of its legal obligations to the First Nations by failing to ensure access to hygienic drinking water.

As part of the deal, the federal government has agreed to spend at least C$6 billion over nine years on water infrastructure and operations across hundreds of reserves and pay $1.5 billion in restitution. often damage about 140,000 indigenous people in the years they don’t have reliable access to clean water.

“Working with Indigenous communities and peoples to support sustainable access to safe drinking water is central to the federal government’s commitment to Indigenous peoples. Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, the federal agency in charge of Indigenous peoples, said in an email.

Michael Rosenberg, First Nations attorney, said that in the one year since the settlement, Canada has spent more than the agreement required and some First Nations have received new infrastructure, “representing progress important set”. But the government still has a long way to go to solve the problem.

“We are at a point where the lack of potable water in First Nations is a really sharp symbol of the prosperity of the world,” said Adele Perry, professor of history and director of the Center for Human Rights Studies at the University. failure of the Canadian state. by Manitoba.

According to an independent government, a challenge to providing safe tap water is recruiting and training qualified plant operators, who tend to be paid significantly less if they work. reserves, making it difficult to retain them. audit last year.

It’s one stumbling block in the Gordian challenge knot that has made the problem unsolvable for decades, punctuated by conditions in North Spirit Lake, a tight-knit community of about 300 people.

The federal government funded the construction of a water treatment plant at North Spirit Lake in 1999 as part of an effort to bring about the same water supply infrastructure to Indigenous reserves as already in place. for other Canadians.

But electrical problems caused the chlorine distribution system to fail, and the recommendation to boil the water was introduced in 2001. After 18 years, the recommendation was lifted after spending nearly C$1 million to raise it. factory level.

It only lasted for five weeks. A leak triggered a new boil order.

Since the leak was repaired in 2019, the boil water order has remained in place because “community water operators were unable to maintain the necessary monitoring of the water plant and water quality, ” Vincent Gauthier, another spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, said in a statement. An email.

According to Gauthier, the last time federally funded experts visited the community to train operators was almost three years ago.

Steven Laronde, an indigenous public works official from Keewaytinook Okimakanak, a council representing the six northern first states, said “really shabby” construction also contributed to home woes. machine.

Today, water from the lake is treated and directed from the treatment plant to about 40 homes and government buildings in the reserve, surrounded by black spruce and jack pine forests. Most of the houses were built after the factory was built and were not connected to the facility by pipes – which would be expensive to build – so they had to get water from the plant by truck.

Tom Meekis was delivering on a weekday in October, driving his Ford F-250 stopping a few times before speeding along a pitted dirt road to the waterworks to fill it up. On winter days, deliveries are sometimes canceled due to frozen intake manifolds.

Neskantaga First Nation, a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario, has been consulting for boiled water since 1995, Canada’s longestand, despite attempts at repair, its treatment plant is still not functioning properly. Neskantaga Police Chief Wayne Moonias said residents had fallen ill with the water.

“They have suffered so much, and sometimes, this is something that is overlooked, the loss of lives,” he said. The reserve is seeking a new water plant from the federal government.

In Shoal Lake 40, a reserve near the border of Manitoba and Ontario, a new waterworks built in 2021 has ended a 24-year-old bubbling. Construction of the plant comes after a year-round road was built in the reserve, which is only accessible by a winter road with frozen waterways and by boat.

Previously, the federal government had proposed repairing the reserve’s existing system.

“Canada will continue to offer initial support solutions, to address our community’s reserve water needs, primarily because these interim solutions are less expensive,” said Vernon Redsky, former director Governor of Shoal Lake 40, said in a legal filing as part of a class action lawsuit launched by indigenous communities.

A government audit noted that long-term solutions to the lack of safe drinking water, including building new water treatment facilities or making significant upgrades to existing water systems, are most likely will take many years to achieve.

Currently, communities like North Spirit Lake rely on plastic water bottle shipments.

On a recent afternoon, a forklift driver unloaded pallets from a cargo plane as a handful of workers were working around the cobbled airport, preparing to unload a 7,000-pound shipment of food, household items and household items. such as mattresses, refrigerators and water bottles for the locals. store owned by Susan Rae.

Ms. Rae provides the reserve’s health clinic with a monthly shipment of water, much of it funded by the federal government, and also sells bottles at her store – $12 for a four-liter pitcher that usually has under $2 in Toronto.

Ms. Rae said she didn’t make any profit from the sale and had trouble with costs. “I don’t like charging that much for water,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should pay that price.”

Some residents like Thomasine Meekis have stopped drinking tap water altogether.

In 2018, Mrs. Meekis, 43, and her daughter Casey, then 11, were infected with E. coli, a bacterial disease that can be spread through contaminated water. Casey was taken to the hospital about an hour away with a fever of 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Meekis said it took her daughter three days to clear her fever.

Today, she and her family drink bottled water when they can afford it, and boiled water or Brita filtered water when they can’t. “We even add a drop of bleach to the water when we wash the dishes,” says Meekis.

She said she believes most other Canadians will never tolerate what natives are forced to deal with.

“I always tell people, I’ll give you a week, come to my sub,” she said. “There is no special treatment. Let’s live the way we live.”


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