I was born on traditional, unceded shíshálh (Sechelt) Nation land. I went to school with First Nation kids who lived on “reserves” on the periphery of my hometown. But I didn’t begin to understand the extent of Canada’s colonial history until I was an adult.
While studying international development at university, I learned about Latin American countries scarred by colonial oppression. I began to wonder about wounds inflicted at home.
My education on this subject continues to this day. I’m often shocked and heartbroken by the historical and ongoing injustices Indigenous peoples and communities face: genocide, residential schools, forced relocation to reserves, systemic poverty, and loss of language, traditional spiritual practices and access to traditional territories for hunting, trapping, gathering plants and medicines. The list goes on.
One of the worst is Canada’s failure to ensure First Nations access to clean drinking water. Water on First Nations is a federal responsibility. The government admits “severe underfunding” for water treatment plants, infrastructure, operations, maintenance and training has led to this deplorable situation.
My David Suzuki Foundation team works with partners to secure legal recognition for everyone’s right to a healthy environment in Canada. More than 95 per cent of people in Canada agree the right to clean water is a basic human right.
Canada endorsed the UN-recognized human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. But this country has no national or enforceable rules protecting drinking water. Instead, Canada relies on a patchwork of water policies protected by law in a few provinces, but not all. This approach jeopardizes people’s health and endangers clean water for future generations.
The situation is particularly egregious in First Nations. As of fall 2016, there were 156 drinking water advisories in 110 First Nations communities across Canada. Many are recurring. Some have been in place for more than 20 years. According to a recent UN report, First Nations homes are 90 times more likely to lack safe drinking water than other homes in Canada. More than 150,000 First Nations people use drinking water from treatment plants and pipes the government deems “medium or high risk.”
Why is the federal government responsible for clean drinking water in First Nations? It has constitutional and legal obligations to the original inhabitants of this land. When immigrants first began arriving in what is now Canada, many Indigenous peoples agreed to share some of their territory and resources. Some made nation-to-nation treaties. Others never ceded control — the Canadian government seized their lands and waters.
Now we’re in a period of national and personal self-reflection and reconciliation. This is good news, and long overdue.
In 2015, the new Liberal government committed to end all First Nations long-term drinking water advisories within five years. The 2016 federal budget included $1.8 billion to help resolve the crisis by 2021. This was in addition to funding it has already invested in First Nations water infrastructure, operations and management. The government’s March 2017 long-term strategy includes “working closely with First Nations to prioritize infrastructure investments and streamline funding processes.”
I have a four-year-old daughter. I can’t imagine not being able to turn on the tap to get her a glass of clean drinking water. Or worrying the bathwater could make her sick. This is an ongoing reality for too many people in Canada.
World Water Day is March 22. Let’s stand with Indigenous peoples who’ve lived here for thousands of years and urge the government to support First Nations-led approaches to providing drinking water in their communities.
Canada can and must meet this promise.