Water faucet. Image credit: Sasikan Ulevik/Unsplash

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had no problem finding $7 billion to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline — so where’s the money for water pipelines to First Nations?

This week, the Canada’s auditor general released her report on whether Canada is providing enough support to ensure that First Nations have access to clean drinking water. The answer was a clear no. This is despite the Liberal government’s promise back in 2015 to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021.

The report entitled “Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities” found that federal policies and funding amounts did not align with its promise to end all long-term drinking water advisories on reserve. But the story doesn’t begin or end with water advisories.

First Nations lands and waters

First of all, we would not be in this crisis if our sovereign jurisdiction, laws and governing powers over our traditional territories and resources were respected. Canada has created and maintained this crisis after generations of colonization, genocide, land dispossession and state control of our water sources.

And no, there is nothing in any of the treaties that said the Crown could take all the water, control it, monetize it and then deny clean water to First Nations. But that is exactly what has happened, despite the fact that the United Nations has recognized access to safe drinking water as a human right — over a decade ago.

Canada continues to act as an outlaw breaking Indigenous laws, its own domestic laws and international laws in relation to human rights. When it comes to the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples, Canada ignores its own so-called “rule of law.” The continued failure to provide clean drinking water to First Nations is a prime example of systemic racism.

Canada assumed jurisdiction over reserve lands

The Crown first steals Indigenous lands, resources and waterways through fraud, deception and breach of its own laws, and then reserves unto itself jurisdiction in the Constitution Act 1867 over “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians.” In other words, the federal government has assumed legal and financial responsibility for water infrastructure on reserve. And this water crisis is the result.

First Nations have been calling on the federal government to address the water crisis for decades. In 1995, Health Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) found that 25 per cent of water systems on reserve posed health and safety risks. In 2001, INAC found “significant risks” to water quality and safety in 75 per cent of water systems on reserve — a shocking number.

A decade later in 2011, INAC reported to the auditor general that more than 50 per cent of water systems still posed significant risks to community members. In 2014, it was 43 per cent of water systems and here we are in 2021, and the risk level hasn’t changed.

At a press conference about the auditor general’s report, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said that while they had hoped to address all long-term drinking water advisories, they lost “a construction season” due to the pandemic. One construction season? If we only start the clock from 1995 forward, they’ve lost 25 years of construction seasons.

The auditor general pointed out that the delays by Indigenous Services were there long before the pandemic and referenced previous AG reports that have consistently raised concerns about the lack of clean drinking water in First Nations.

And let’s not forget the numbers here. In addition to the 60 long-term water advisories that are left to be resolved — half of those have been in place for more than a decade. Imagine an entire decade in Fredericton, Toronto, Winnipeg or Saskatoon without clean drinking water and where there was only enough water to bathe once a week. That would never be tolerated anywhere else for anyone else. The situation would be treated as the urgent crisis that it is.

Federal policies for water on reserve are decades old

The federal government’s less-than-sincere commitment to urgently address the water crisis in First Nations is betrayed by the fact that their policies are decades old. The sad reality is that no one in the federal government has been concerned enough about the health, safety and well-being of First Nations families to treat the lack of access to safe drinking water as a crisis.

In fact, over the years, AG reports found that the federal government couldn’t even be bothered to do annual inspections for all the water systems, despite their medium to high risk. It’s as if the words “significant risks” to community members were merely notations in a report.

The auditor general also noted that some of the federal government’s policies in relation to water systems on reserve are decades old and some were written in the 1960s. She further noted that they have not amended their policy in relation to funding for the operations and maintenance of water systems on reserve for over 30 years.

This means that the funding they do provide to First Nations to maintain their water systems does not take into account new technologies, the actual costs to maintain or the risk level and actual condition of the water system. On top of that, they only provide up to 80 per cent of the costs determined by this outdated policy, while at the same time paying First Nation water operators 30 per cent less than the rest of Canada.

Is there any wonder why the federal government is constantly chasing drinking water advisories and never seems to catch up?

Think about it this way: if your roof has a leak and it would cost $10,000 to repair but you only “invest” $1,000, what happens? Well, your roof isn’t entirely fixed, it continues to leak, causing more damage to the roof and the rest of the house. The next year, it will cost you $30,000 to fix the roof and the extra repairs.

This is the point the AG made: “If funding to operate and maintain water systems is insufficient, water systems may continue to deteriorate at a faster-than-expected rated.”

The numbers shell game

It’s important to dig into the numbers to truly understand the full scope of this problem. The AG’s report was limited to only the 1,050 “public water systems” in 600-plus First Nations. This is because Indigenous Services’ water policies and funding formulas do not provide support for those who rely on wells or cisterns. Worse than that, their water policies do not support for those without any running water!

And this isn’t a small number. More than one-third of all households on reserve are in the category of wells, cisterns or no running water at all. So the problem is much bigger than it would first appear.

It’s also important to look at how Indigenous Services has differentiated between short-term and long-term water advisories. The government seems to be congratulating itself for having “only” 60 long-term water advisories left; meanwhile over the same period, the AG confirmed that there were 1,281 short-term advisories.

More than 10 per cent of those short-term water advisories were for periods of two months or more. But worse than that, the AG also found in some First Nations, they had multiple short-term advisories, that when added up, were more than a year in total cumulative length. But they don’t get counted in long-term advisories and misrepresents the seriousness of short-term advisories. Even with long-term advisories, they get counted as “lifted” or “resolved” if temporary measures are made to bring in water — even if the deficiencies in the water system have not been remediated.

Drinking water advisory numbers are clearly not the most transparent or effective way to measure whether or not the water crisis has been remedied. The more transparent measure would be whether each household on the reserve and each daycare, school, health centre, community building and business has consistently safe, reliable, clean drinking water and sanitation.

That’s the number that matters — not how many water advisories you lifted one minute but were re-imposed the next. That’s a shell game that only serves to hide a much larger problem and certainly doesn’t respect the human right of First Nations to water.

Let’s talk pipelines…

Canada brags about having 84,000 kilometres of pipelines all over the country servicing the oil and gas industry. When confronted with losing the Trans Mountain pipeline, Trudeau managed to find $7 billion in a hurry to buy it. So, where are the pipelines bringing clean water to First Nations?

There are camps full of thousands of mostly men flown into First Nation territories, in even in the remotest of places, that have access to health care, safe, mould-free housing, healthy food, and clean drinking water and sanitation. So, where is the health care, housing, food and clean water for First Nations?

Canada’s military brings millions of litres of fresh water to other countries in emergencies — so where’s the clean water for First Nations? Canada has spent more than $240 billion on pandemic relief measures, but there isn’t enough money to ensure water in First Nations during a pandemic?

Minister Miller says they lost a construction season during the pandemic and that’s why they couldn’t address the water crisis. Really? Because the construction season for oil and gas pipelines, the tar sands, mining projects and other extractive projects and infrastructure continued during the pandemic. But construction couldn’t proceed on water pipelines.

No one but Liberal politicians are buying these excuses anymore. The reason all First Nation households don’t have access to clean water is widespread, longstanding, systemic racism and a denial of basic human rights for First Nations.

It is the same reason why there is a housing crisis on reserve; the same reason why there is a humanitarian crisis of First Nations children in foster care; the same reason why there are crisis-level rates of incarceration of First Nations; and why there are thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in this country.

Until we address the racism in Canada’s laws, policies and practices, we’ll never end genocide against First Nations or the water crisis. There is no such thing as incremental equality or partial human rights. You either have them or you don’t. And clearly, First Nations have neither equality nor the protection of human rights.

We need Canadians to stand up and say this isn’t right. Demand that the federal government bring every resource to bear to ensure safe, reliable, clean drinking water and sanitation to every single household on reserve. Not in two years, three years or after the next election — but this year. Next year’s report needs to count households with water and sanitation — not drinking water advisories.

Treat this as the national emergency that it is and get it done like they would if this was in their own backyards. We all know it would only take a week without water for any of these politicians to call in the army in their town or city if this happened to them. So get it done. And while they are at it, they should also return some of the lands, resources and waterways they took — so this isn’t a problem in the future.

For more information: https://www.pampalmater.com

Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads Ryerson’s Centre for Indigenous Governance. This article was originally published in Indigenous Nationhood.

Image credit: Sasikan Ulevik/Unsplash