Boil Water Advisories and Canda's Indigenous People

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Boil Water Advisories and Canda's Indigenous People

Despite Canada being one of the world's wealthiest nations, its indigenous communities are in many ways still in the Third World, including when it comes to the numerous boil water advisories, which, in many cases, have been going on for decades. 

Canada is one of the wealthiest and most water-rich countries in the world. Yet many of its First Nations communities continue to lack safe drinking water — a basic human right. As of February, 61 Indigenous reserves were under long-term drinking water advisories, half of which remain unresolved after more than a decade. These water advisories warn people to either boil water before use, not to consume it, or avoid it altogether because of toxicity levels. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to end these advisories by March 2021. But while the government presented action plans on many important topics during the speech from the throne on Sept. 23, it failed to mention its promise to bring safe drinking water to all Indigenous reserves by next spring.

The lack of acknowledgement in this year’s speech has led some Canadians to doubt the government’s ability to meet the deadline.  A senior government source told CBC News that the government is no longer as comfortable with the target date as they were before COVID-19 hit the country. The pandemic has made it more difficult for construction workers to enter communities, potentially resulting in a delay in resolving these critical water supply issues.

“It should not take that long to … improve people’s lives on reserves and in communities when [the government] can do much, much more for regular Canadians at the drop of a hat when something like COVID-19 hits,” said Rob Houle, an Indigenous advocate from Swan River First Nation.

The oldest advisory that’s still in effect today was put in place back in 1995 on the Neskantaga First Nation. This means that the Neskantaga reserve has now been deprived of safe drinking water for a quarter of a century. In September 2019, the remote community declared a state of emergencyafter a water pump failed, leaving some homes completely without running water and others with water that was not safe to use except to flush toilets. One year later, its people still have to boil water for safety.

The severe and prolonged nature of these drinking water advisories is particularly concerning during the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to clean water and sanitation is essential to staying healthy.  Around the world, Indigenous communities have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic because of structural inequalities when it comes to water access, health care, and living conditions.

In Canada, these same inequalities are at play, putting Indigenous people at greater risk, especially if the country experiences a second wave. On reserves with an at-risk water supply, people not only have to take extra precaution with their drinking water, but also with water used for sanitation and hygiene.  Under the boil water advisory, which makes up the majority of all long-term advisories, communities need to boil all water for at least one minute before drinking, brushing their teeth, or cooking, and should not use tap water to bathe infants, toddlers, or the elderly. The other two advisories — do not consume and do not use — have even stricter guidelines. ...

In its 2016 budget, the government had committed $1.8 million over five years to fix and maintain the on-reserve water and wastewater infrastructure. Now with only half a year left, the government has lifted 88 long-term drinking water advisories, and still has more than 60 remaining.

Over the past two decades, Canada has shown a pattern of overpromising and underperforming on water and sanitation on Indigenous reserves, according to the Human Rights Watch. Whether Trudeau’s government will continue on this path of disappointment is to be determined.


Here's a look at the reasons for the failures of governments to deal with the drinking advisory problem and why the supposed reduction in the number of water advisories under Trudeau is misleading. 

Some advisories are so old, explains Dawn Martin-Hill, one of the founders of the Indigenous Studies Program at McMaster University, that “you could have a 16-year-old girl growing up in northern Ontario who has never been able to drink or bathe in the water that they have access to.” ...

With 17 months left on the clock, Trudeau’s government has nearly halved the number of long-term advisories — those in place for a year or longer — from 105 down to 56, according to government data.  However, that data has its limitations: it doesn’t include B.C. or any of the territories. And even if Trudeau eliminates long-term boil water advisories by 2021, experts like Martin-Hill say he won’t have actually addressed the issues that led to them — nor will it mean that all First Nations people have guaranteed, long-term access to clean drinking water. So why, despite the federal government’s pledge, do some First Nations still not have potable water, and what exactly needs to be done to get it to them? ...

Canadian governments have spent many years and billions of dollars trying to make clean water flow from the taps on First Nations. At any given time, some 100 First Nations are under water advisories, according to non-profit organization The Council of Canadians.

There are three types of advisories: boil waterdo not consume and do not use. The most common is a boil water advisory, in which communities are told they should boil all water for at least one minute before drinking, brushing their teeth or cooking and that they shouldn’t use tap water to bathe infants, toddlers or the elderly. ...

The reasons why water on First Nations isn’t potable varies, impacted by everything from the water’s origin to the pipes through which it flows to how remote the community is. ...

On July 7, Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency over concerns about disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes. A few days later, Eabametoong First Nation followed suit, its chief explaining the decision in a press release on July 15: “The discovery of high levels of trihalomethanes, combined with ongoing issues with our water and wastewater systems, has forced us to declare a state of emergency to protect the health of our community.”

READ MORE: Indigenous communities and water crises — is a real solution in the works? In Attawapiskat‘s case, the government earmarked $1.5-million to repair an existing treatment plant and said there are plans for a second system. Eabametoong declared a state of emergency after the water developed a “noticeable foul smell and taste,”however the community has been under a boil-water advisory for nearly two decades. Despite the state of emergency, Eabametoong expected the “long-term” advisory to lift in August because of a new water treatment plant. As of late September, however, the community was still under an advisory. ...

The federal government has a list of solutions to these long-term boil water advisories, including patchwork repairs, permanent repairs, entire new systems, feasibility studies and better training and monitoring. ...

Many have made it clear the existing solutions are imperfect. Take Six Nations, where Martin-Hill lives. The government gave the community money for a treatment plant in 2014, but that was it — “no money to operate it,” she says. With few options, Martin-Hill says the community took the money, built their “state-of-the-art treatment plant and said: ‘We’ll figure it out as we always do.’”

Now, Six Nations has the treatment plant, Martin-Hill says, but people still live without clean drinking water because almost nobody has piping into their houses that can carry in the newly clean water. In other words, only a small percentage of the population gets clean water — everyone else needs to buy big jugs of fresh water. ...

Additionally, the Trudeau government’s promise focused on “long-term” boil water advisories, not short-and medium-term advisories. While many communities have been dealing with these so-called short-term problems for years, Angela Mashford-Pringle, who works at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the University of Toronto, told Global News in July that such communities are being left out because their advisories are not technically “long-term.”

“Realistically, if you went across the country, quite a few of the 633 First Nations are on either short-term or medium-term advisories,” she said. “I’m not sure if we’re doing much to change that.”

Add in the fact that, while the government may technically be on track for a promise kept, an investigation from Globe and Mail reporter Matt McClearn analyzed more than a decade of government data and found “the overall reliability of the underlying water systems is little improved since the party came to power.”

“There are a lot of systems across the country on First Nations reserves that are in poor shape that aren’t on a boil water advisory, and the risk scores reflect that,” says McClearn.

The risk scores are updated every year, when the government looks at the design of public water systems, how well they are operated and maintained, the associated record-keeping, the quality of the source water and the operators’ qualification to come up with a ranking from one to 10, with 10 being extreme risk. “The risk scores can tell you about systems that have problems that are not on boil water advisories yet,” McClearn says. ...

A big chunk of the reason for these issues is money. First Nations get much less from the federal government than they would from the province if they were a municipality of similar size, says McClearn. “There are a lot of consequences that come along with that. One is that these plants tend to get less maintenance than they need.” And water treatment plants need a lot of maintenance and technical know-how, says Emma Thompson, who did her masters research on water advisories in First Nations. “It’s a really complicated system … especially remote communities would struggle with that,” she says. ...

That these communities are federally regulated stands out, Thompson says — and not in a good way. “It’s the most decentralized way to manage a drinking water system,” she says. “It’s a really disconnected way to manage that kind of system with (provincial) regulations… a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to help.”

To understand how this system became so unequal and why First Nations receive less funding for clean water than neighbouring municipalities simply because they are regulated federally and not provincially, you have to go back to the beginning of Canada — to colonization. 

When Parliament passed the Indian Act in 1876, it established the reserve system that Canadians know now. In conjunction with existing treaties made between the government and different First Nations, the act established which tracts of land would be for First Nations people so that settlers could set up farms.

The government’s stated goal was to force the assimilation of First Nations people and to make them Canadian by stripping them of their land, their culture, their autonomy and — as seen through the residential school system and the ’60s Scoop — their children. The government didn’t give much thought to the land where they sent First Nations, Martin-Hill says.

“They didn’t put in roads, housing or infrastructure because they thought we were going to die out … they never thought we would still be here. The fact that we are is a testimony to our resilience and our strength as a people.”

Even though colonization “dictates what (First Nations people) have today” with respect to access to clean drinking water, she says it doesn’t have to. “We need to get our land claims settled in a just way and then we would be able to solve our own problems.”


Unsurprisingly, the Trudeau government has announced that it will not keep its promise to end water advisories for  First Nations. 

The Liberal government will miss a target it set during the 2015 federal election campaign to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021 — in some cases by several years — according to a survey of communities by CBC News.

More than a dozen First Nations said projects to end long-term drinking water advisories won't be completed by the promised deadline. 

Five communities reached by CBC News said a permanent fix will take years.

"Frustration sets in at times," said Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, which has been under a long-term boil water advisory for more than 21 months and had sporadic temporary boil water advisories for many years prior to that. We need [the federal government] to speak out. They're not going to meet that target, but they should be telling the First Nations [they're] not pulling out." 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised to end all long-term boil water advisories during the 2015 campaign. It was the first major promise on the Indigenous reconciliation file, which became one of the central priorities of the Liberal's governing agenda. The Trudeau government then said it would meet the target by March 2021.

Now, months away from the deadline, many communities say the government is set to break its promise and they're urging Ottawa to step up its efforts. ...

Chippewas of Nawash is one of 41 communities contacted by CBC News that are currently on Indigenous Services Canada's long-term boil water advisory list. 

The community, located 57 kilometres north of Owen Sound, Ont., hugs the southeastern tip of Georgian Bay and east side of Lake Huron — some of the largest sources of freshwater in the country. Its traditional name "Neyaashiinigmiing" means a point of land surrounded on three sides by water — yet its members can't drink water from their taps.

The Chippewas of Nawash is receiving over $22.5 million to build a new water plant after extensive lobbying and delays caused by a change in the department's minister, but it will be a while before safe drinking water flows.

Construction isn't expected to complete until 2023, said Nadjiwon. "I think the most important aspect of that promise is that it happens," he said. "We're going to have to bear with it, but there are a lot of First Nation communities in the province that are in dire need of having treatment plants so they can finally have potable water." ...

More than half of the communities still on the long-term drinking water advisory list are in Ontario.

"To me, that speaks to systemic racism," Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald said. "It's not that government individuals are individually racist. It's that the system itself is really not caring." Archibald said the problem stems from chronic underfunding by all governments. She said a sustainable, long-term term financial commitment is needed to address the humanitarian crisis. "This is not just a Justin Trudeau problem," Archibald said. "This is a Brian Mulroney problem. This is a Jean Chretien problem. This is a problem of Stephen Harper. Government after government has failed First Nations."

The community that embodied the Liberal's safe drinking water promise is Neskantaga. The fly-in First Nation of 460 members, which sits 450 km north of Thunder Bay, has been under a boil water advisory for 25 years. It raised its plight during the 2015 campaign on the same day Trudeau made his promise. The Liberal government committed to upgrading Neskantaga's water treatment plant by 2018, but the project is two years behind schedule. With the government's promised deadline looming, Nesktanaga was forced to evacuate last week when an oily sheen was discovered in the reservoir that supplies the community. "It was horrific," Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias. "What [could have] happened if someone consumed it?"

Tests show water is contaminated with hydrocarbons. Moonias said he still doesn't know how the contamination got into the reservoir, but there are leaks in the water distribution system.

Until those leaks are fixed, Moonias said Neskantaga can't start using its new water treatment plant, which is almost operational. Moonias said he doubts the work will be enough to lift its boil water advisory. "We have said all along, for the past over 20 years, that we need a new system," Moonias said. "The system that was forced upon us is flawed. We can't keep doing band-aid solutions. We can't keep on ordering new parts and doing upgrades." Along with Curve Lake First Nation in southern Ontario, Neskantaga First Nation is one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit against the federal government seeking damages and compensation for communities and members who have suffered from boil water advisories.

A class action suit has also been launched in Manitoba by Tataskweyak Cree Nation making similar allegations. ...

Complicating matters, COVID-19 caused project delays in many First Nations that shut down to protect themselves from the virus.  Upgrades to the water treatment plant in Nibinamik First Nation, which is located about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, were supposed to start this summer. But Chief Sheldon Oskineegish said the community decided to postpone the work by one year because it didn't have the capacity to accommodate contractors and maintain physical distancing during the pandemic. 

Concerns over COVID-19 also pushed back water projects in Sachigo Lake First Nation, about 640 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, which is now negotiating a delay cost with its contractor that could set the community back thousands of dollars. ...

In some cases, the fact that a community is close to lifting its long-term drinking water advisory doesn't mean it will have safe drinking water for all. In Wahta Mohawk First Nation, located nearly 80 kilometres north of Barrie, Ont., the community is waiting for test results to come back so it can lift the advisory on its administrative building, which will then supply water to the rest of the community. A water distribution system does not exist on Wahta Mohawk First Nation because the cost of laying pipe in granite is considered too high for its population of approximately 200 people. 

Upgrades to the water treatment plant on the Chippewas of Georgina Island, located about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, are expected to be completed by the spring or summer of next year. However, 30 per cent of the community will still not have access to running water — a distribution system does not exist for the east side of the island.


Last week the Neskantaga First Nation came home to their community in Northern Ontario, after two months away, to supposedly clean tap water for the first time in 25 years, which is the longest of any First Nation. However, the 1995 boil water advisory is still in place because of ongoing problems with the water plant. 

After two months of living in hotel rooms, members of a remote First Nation will begin returning home today to clean tap water for the first time in 25 years.

But the community's public health officer says the boil-water advisory, which has been in place since 1995, will remain in place because of lingering problems with the water plant's performance — problems the community warns could grow worse without more help from the federal government.

Neskantaga, a Northern Ontario community of about 300 people, has been under a boil-water advisory for longer than any other First Nation in Canada. ...

The results of a 14-day performance test by ALS Laboratories in Thunder Bay, 450 km south of Neskantaga, show samples collected from the reserve's upgraded treatment plant did not contain disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli, according to a Dec. 16 letter to the chief and council from Oksana Ostrovska, the Matawa First Nations Management Tribal Council's environmental public health officer.

But since chlorine residuals in the distribution system have been consistently inadequate and some technical and operational deficiencies are still in effect, Ostrovska said, the boil water advisory is staying put for now.

"The Boil Water Advisory will remain in effect until all operational and technical deficiencies are addressed and the results of further water samples indicate that the water is safe to drink," wrote Ostrovska in her letter to the chief and council.


A list of some of the boil water advisories can be found at the url below:

laine lowe laine lowe's picture

One of the biggest problems is having the human resources to operate the water treatment and water sewage systems. The training and possibly compensation for people to run these services in wholly inadequate. A perfectly fine facility can be built but if there is no staff capable of keeping it running including keeping an inventory of replacement parts and required chemicals, the facility is quickly downgraded and becomes inoperational. One Chief asked Indigenous Affairs to provide a professional manager/engineer to their community for 10 years. The federal government deemed that too long and only agreed to 5 years. This is part of the ineffective response. That Chief knows that without that resource, things will not change. Indigenous Affairs also promoted a hub and spoke response for technical support that is not working - where Tribal Councils are funded to staff technical experts that are supposed to go to individual reserves to help with operations, repairs and inspections. That system is not working.


The David Suzuki Foundation has pointed out the failure of the Trudeau Liberals to live up to their promise of ending boil water advisories by 2021 and much of the limited success in ending this problem has come from innovative approaches taken by First Nations. 

Drinking water advisories have been a persistent injustice in First Nations throughout Canada. Currently, more than 100 communities go without clean drinking water. Many have faced these conditions for years, or even decades.

After years of pressure from Indigenous and social justice organizations, the federal government committed to ending all long‐term drinking water advisories by 2021. In response, the David Suzuki Foundation has begun monitoring progress on resolving First Nations drinking water advisories. Our first report released in February 2017 in partnership with the Council of Canadians concluded that although work to end DWAs had begun, the federal government was not on track to fulfil its commitment. Assessments from this year’s report are similar.

Despite the problematic prognosis, innovative solutions are emerging from communities leading on ending drinking water advisories. Investments should be made to replicate and expand these successful community-based approaches. This will require the federal government to honour its commitment to relationship-building, trust and sharing decision-making authority.

  • Invest in and share successful models of First Nations-led approaches to resolving drinking water advisories, including developing and implementing source water protection plans  
  • Ensure expedited, but sound, processes to upgrade systems — including adequate and transparent funding for operations and maintenance 
  • Develop legislation and regulations impacting First Nations’ right to clean water with First Nations as equal partners


In the year since February 2020 the 61 boil water advisories issued at that time has been reduced by a grand total of three to "58 drinking water advisories in effect" ( as of December 24th 2020, making the Trudeau Liberal goal of eliminating boil water advisories by March 2021 a pathetic joke. 

61 Indigenous Communities in Canada Still Need to Boil Water for Safety

The government vowed to end drinking water advisories on Indigenous reserves by March 2021.

Canada is one of the wealthiest and most water-rich countries in the world. Yet many of its First Nations communities continue to lack safe drinking water — a basic human right.

As of February, 61 Indigenous reserves were under long-term drinking water advisories, half of which remain unresolved after more than a decade. These water advisories warn people to either boil water before use, not to consume it, or avoid it altogether because of toxicity levels. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to end these advisories by March 2021. But while the government presented action plans on many important topics during the speech from the throne on Sept. 23, it failed to mention its promise to bring safe drinking water to all Indigenous reserves by next spring.

The lack of acknowledgement in this year’s speech has led some Canadians to doubt the government’s ability to meet the deadline. 

A senior government source told CBC News that the government is no longer as comfortable with the target date.