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Is denying drinking water to Indigenous nations an act of genocide?

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Dirty water spilling out of a large glass carboy on its side. Photo by Ildar Sagdejev/ Wikimedia Commons.

The United Nations definition of genocide includes "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" and "causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group."

McMaster University Professor Dawn Martin-Hill told CBC Radio last spring, "Environmental racism is alive and well in Canada and the U.S. It's everybody's guess as to why Six Nations does not have good water. Why is that? It's by design. It has to be."

She also recently told The Guardian that the high suicide rate among Indigenous youth in Canada is directly related to the lack of clean drinking water. Martin-Hill says, "The young people are upset, pissed and demoralized. There's a strong element of depression, sadness and hopelessness because it's been going on for so long."

Her comments suggest there is both a "deliberateness" and "mental harm" associated with the Canadian state failing to provide clean drinking water to Indigenous peoples living -- and dying -- on reserves across this country.

Mainstream media rarely reports the lack of clean drinking water on First Nation reserves as deliberate. There is more commonly a presumption that it's related to poverty or perhaps the remote geographic location of some reserves, both of which are also generally causally decontextualized from the reality of colonialism and dispossession.

Nor does mainstream media commonly report on the actual number of Indigenous people who are forced to cope without clean drinking water. It also mostly reports on the number of communities, generally not acknowledged as nations, without clean drinking water.

This all contributes to how we interpret what's happening.

Martin-Hill lives on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in southern Ontario. Water activist Emma Lui has highlighted, "Over 90 per cent of people in Six Nations of the Grand River, roughly over 11,000 people, do not have clean, running water." And while pointing out the difficulty in estimating the number of Indigenous people without clean drinking water in this country, Lui has noted it could be as high as 72,000 people.

But hasn't the federal government now promised to address the issue of clean drinking water on reserves?

The Trudeau government maintains that it will be able to fulfill its October 2015 election promise to end "boil water advisories" by March 2021. (Lui critiques the "misleading" shift in Trudeau's terminology on this promise in this blog posted on rabble.ca.)

To do so, it has allocated $1.8 billion over the next five years.

But the federal government's own "National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems" says $4.7 billion is needed, including an immediate infusion of $1.2 billion to deal with high-risk systems.

There are different ways to approach these numbers (it has also been estimated that $3.2 billion is needed for drinking water), but it can generally be understood that the Trudeau government's spending pledge falls at least $1 billion below what is needed.

Furthermore, rather than the spending the $1.2 billion that is needed immediately, the Trudeau government committed just $296 million in 2016 and $322 million in 2017, and back-ended spending much of the rest of their funding pledge.

While this point has been repeatedly made, the Trudeau government has not credibly explained how it will eliminate water advisories without sufficient funds.

Still, is there deliberateness to this?

Here, we should look at the Trudeau government not flinching at spending $4.5 billion upfront to purchase the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline -- while acknowledging that the pipeline itself threatens the aquifer needed by the C'eletkwmx people in British Columbia for their drinking water.

As such, the Trudeau government made a conscious and deliberate decision that at the very least prioritizes a tar sands pipeline, not a human right, over clean drinking water for Indigenous peoples, which is a human right.

Any suggestion that the federal government does not have the money to ensure clean drinking water falls flat after it rushed to bail out Houston-based transnational Kinder Morgan, especially given building the pipeline could cost the government $15 to 20 billion.

Beyond the United Nations definition of genocide and its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its Sustainable Development Goals, the UN General Assembly has also recognized the human right to water.

Canada will next have to report at the UN on its human rights record in July 2020.

The Trudeau government will reportedly spend millions of dollars in its bid for a two-year term on the UN Security Council starting in 2021.

The Trudeau government badly wants that seat. That makes the UN a possible battleground to apply pressure to the Trudeau government to spend the money needed -- now -- on water.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Photo: Ildar Sagdejev/ Wikimedia Commons

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