The Clean Water Crisis in First Nation Communities of Canada – A Hidden Devastation

The Clean Water Crisis in First Nation Communities of Canada – A Hidden Devastation


Children and their families in First Nation communities in Canada are currently undergoing a decades-long severe crisis of fresh drinking water shortage. According to Canadian Broadcasting Channel (CBC), nearly 73% First Nation water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination and as a result, hundreds of thousands of children in these communities have to boil their tap water and experience a weekly shortage of clean water for basic necessities, such as bathing, drinking, and cooking. In fact, the federal government states that there are nearly 91 First Nations communities under long-term boil-water advisories as of January 2017. Incredibly, over 100 water advisories – each one with as many as 5,000 affected people – are prevalent among First Nation families and children in Canada. Under these conditions, thousands cannot even use their tap water for simple, non-drinking activities such as washing household items or their hands. This has resulted in many children to experience accidental ingestion and hence epidemics, such as the outbreak of H1N1 in 2009, as they are the most prone to accidental consumption. In fact, the flu was so widespread in remote Manitoba First Nations that, at one point, Indigenous people made up two-thirds of all patients on respirators in the province.


Canadian journalists Anita Elash and Connie Walker investigated in a report published by CBC on January 2019 several reasons for this crisis. One of these that they discovered is that the homes of thousands of Indigenous children and their families do not have water pipes connected to a water treatment plant. Instead, these families draw water from a storage tank, or cistern, that rely on truck deliveries of water from the treatment plant. However, even these tanks full of water are not clean and fit for drinking, as films full of bacteria settle at the bottom of every tank, causing thousands of children to fall sick through diarrhea, eating problems, and more.


Additionally, hundreds of First Nation community members do not have indoor plumbing in their homes. This causes many children and their families to make several trips per week to the community water fountain to fill jugs of water for everyone in their family for drinking, showering, and doing the dishes. Unfortunately, children in these communities cannot access even these minuscule services due to repeated slow delivery of water trucks, failed cisterns (many which already fail to meet federal water safety standards), and a lack of indoor plumbing.


All is not lost; there are many efforts which are already taking place and many more which can be initiated for increased better results. The federal government, along with NGOs and not-for-profit organizations, need to increase funding towards maintaining and improving the existing water system infrastructures, training more people in the community to regularly clean cisterns, and covering their salaries. Also, funding to train and pay tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians to repair problems as they arise is essential. Additionally, larger funds are needed to build more water treatment plants in First Nation communities that are connected to homes through pipes and indoor plumbing facilities is required. Fortunately, such fundraising efforts are already taking place in Canada by many organizations, such as WE, North America’s largest NGO, which holds the annual Walk For Water campaign every year to raise awareness and funds to help First Nation communities with their water crisis. Further, the current federal government has promised that they will fight towards ending all water advisories by 2021 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly spoken about working towards helping end the sufferings of First Nation communities a serious priority. Since becoming prime minister, Trudeau has earmarked nearly $2 billion to make good on his promise. Of the 105 long-term drinking-water advisories in place in November 2015, 71 have been lifted. But because 35 have been added, a total of 69 remain.


This current situation, which has been happening for as long as 20 years for numerous communities such as Shoal Lake 40, needs to addressed as soon as possible, as it poses as a violation to the rights of Indigenous children guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Canada signed in 1991). This is because Article 24 of UNCRC states that every child has the right to the best health care possible, nutritious food, a clean and safe environment but most importantly, safe water to drink. “First Nations” is a term used to describe Aboriginal people in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. They are original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, and were the first to encounter sustained European contact, settlement and trade. In 2011, there were more than 1.3 million people in Canada who identified as being of First Nations heritage. There are 634 First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.

Brown water from Winnipeg taps is seen in this 2013 file photo. Those who live in Shoal Lake 40 First Nation have had to put up with far worse than discoloured water for a lot longer than a few weeks, says Jo Davies. (CBC)


Written By:  Shifa H. Sarker

CORIA of Canada