Lack of water crisis on First Nations reserves needs addressing

Concerned citizens must ensure that the right to water for all Canadians is upheld by the government

Imagine that you and your family are living in a northern First Nation community. In addition to the harsh living environment, you lack a necessity that most people take for granted — access to running water.

This mental image is the type of condition that you might expect in an underdeveloped country, not in the wealthy country of Canada. These living conditions, however, are a reality in many northern First Nations communities and sadly, this description represents how many aboriginals are living today.

Canada is a country that prides itself on values such as commitment to social justice, fairness and equality. Considering these values, it is unjust that in the 21st century, clean and accessible running water remains unavailable to so many Canadian citizens.

Amnesty International has estimated that 20,000 First Nations people living on reserves across Canada have no access to running water or proper sewage systems. To make the situation even worse, the federal government reported earlier this year that tap water in 116 First Nations communities was not safe to drink.

In 2010, the Winnipeg Free Press published an award-winning investigative series, which included articles, photos and videos, exploring and detailing the lack of clean water and inadequate sewage systems in the Island Lake region of Manitoba.

According to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Island Lake region consists of four reserves with a population of around 10,000. Half of its homes do not have running water.

The United Nations recommends that 50 litres of clean water are needed each day to meet the minimum standards of living. As Winnipeg Free Press reporters discovered, many people in this region survive on a mere 10 litres per day, often coming from untreated lakes and contaminated rivers.

An estimated 20,000 First Nations people living on reserves across Canada do not have access to running water or proper sewage systems.

When this issue is examined nationwide, it gets worse.

According to a report published by the Polaris Institute and Assembly of First Nations, at least 85 First Nations water systems are considered to be high risk, and there are close to 100 boil water advisories in effect in various communities, meaning they have little or no access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.

Access to water is considered to be a basic human right, you can find it in several international human rights conventions. Our federal government is ignoring this pressing social health issue and they have yet to take meaningful action in addressing the water crisis on First Nations reserves. Social justice and equality can only be advanced when we choose to make the investment in improving the quality of life for our fellow citizens.

These living conditions are simply unacceptable and all levels of government must partner and demonstrate leadership and commitment to addressing this overlooked injustice.

Every human being deserves access to water – a basic human right essential to sustaining life.

There is a disaster taking place in many of Canada’s First Nations communities. The lack of political discussion surrounding this issue is shameful.

Our government must recognize that the right to accessible clean water and adequate sanitation is a human right for all people and is essential to our health and well-being. As concerned citizens, we must ensure that the right to water for all Canadians is upheld by the government. 

Brittany Thiessen is a student at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 65, Number 26 of The Uniter (June 2, 2011)

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