Photo: imekinox/Flickr

Fresh water. Canada has more of it than almost any other country on Earth. According to the United Nations Development Program, over 99.8 per cent of Canadians have access to pure drinking water and safe sanitation.

But try telling that to Mike Gull. “Our water smells like raw sewage right now,” says Gull, head of the water treatment program at Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. “It’s very septic. There’s lots of bad stuff in here, lots of dead organic matter.”

Chief Connie Gray-McKay of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, 500 km northwest of Thunder Bay, has similar concerns. “Our water smells like iron and magnesium. People have allergic reactions to it, and their laundry turns yellow.”

Attawapiskat and Mishkeegogamang are among the 112 reserves, out of 633, where the water is not considered safe to drink, according to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. In the past, says Merrell-Ann Phare of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Research, as many as one in three reserves have lacked safe water. There are no statistics kept on how many people are affected, but “you’re talking about quite a few people,” says Phare.

The decline in water quality “is caused by human pollution,” says Phare. “There aren’t always toxic contaminants, but there can be erosion, turbidity, agricultural runoff, fertilizer and manure. These are legally licensed activities; our government says they will allow this, but they need to be taking into account the cumulative effects of multiple industries.”

“There are problems with water access in other remote communities in Canada, but it is much worse in First Nations,” she continues. “There is a lack of money, a lack of a legal regime, and a lack of capacity. First Nations are caught between federal and provincial jurisdiction,” she adds. “In Attawapiskat, you have all of those problems put together.”

The dilapidated condition of many reserve houses compounds the problem. “A lot of homes are not retrofitted for sinks and tubs, and we don’t want to create a bigger problem by putting in pipes and then the pipes freezing,” says Gray-McKay. Hence, she says, “some parts of the community have running water and some don’t.”

In households without indoor plumbing, Gray-McKay explains, “some people use slop pails. You know, like when you have your washroom inside the pail?”

The health consequences for the residents are often serious. “Children have rashes and gastrointestinal issues; there are complications of diabetes,” says Phare. “The H1N1 epidemic was exacerbated in these communities because people could not practice sanitation measures like hand washing — if you don’t have water, you can’t wash your hands. So the virus spread and the infection rate was much higher.”

Speaking to MP Charlie Angus in a Huffington Post video blog in October 2011, Dr. John Waddell of the Weeneebayko Health Authority blames dirty water and substandard housing for “infectious diseases of the respiratory tract and the digestive tract, colds, ear infections, strep throat, bronchitis, and a variety of illnesses.” Not to mention, damage to the sense of self-worth of young people who are reduced to using a pail for a washroom.

Angus’ video blog went viral and drew national attention to Attawapiskat’s dire condition. But Gull says a lack of safe drinking water is nothing new on the reserve. “The first water treatment plant burned down in 1987; we built a new one in 1989 but started having problems with it right away because they introduced the wrong kind of treatment.”

Faucets and pipes are also a recent development. “We only introduced running water and [plumbing for] sewage in 1996,” he says. “Before that, we used watering holes and people hauled their water.”

“We [in Mishkeegogamang] have put the government on notice many times, but I don’t think they knew how big the problem was,” says Gray-McKay.

Phare says jurisdictional disputes and a lack of political will have kept reserves from ensuring for themselves the same access to clean water as other Canadian municipalities. “Sometimes the water source is on provincial land but the reserves are all federal land,” she says. “So you have the different levels of government saying ‘That’s your responsibility. No, that’s your responsibility.'”

Money is also an obstacle. “There is a problem of chronic underfunding,” says Phare. “It can take years or even a decade to come up with money for water treatment. Even then, the federal government gives only 80 per cent of the cost and most First Nations can’t raise that 20 per cent. The First Nations have very little authority over their own budget and they have to get permission from the ministry for it. There are so many barriers. “

“We don’t get the funding to make real change,” says Gray-McKay. She says the community commissioned an independent study, which estimated the cost of modernizing water treatment and replacing condemned houses with liveable ones would total $3.5 million. However, the reserve’s annual infrastructure budget is only $600,000. Houses are built with substandard materials and overcrowding — as many as 18 people in a house — adds to the problem. Gray-McKay also cites a lack of trained plumbers in the community, meaning many problems can’t be solved by the people they affect. “We need to do some capacity building.”

“We had a study done that recommended we draw water from a river 8 km away,” says Gull. “That would cost around $10 million, and we would still have to upgrade the existing plant. There are no plans to move forward on that yet.” GENIVAR, an Ottawa engineering firm, helped to conduct the study on the reserve’s current water source. The study found methane compounds in levels twice as high as Health Canada’s maximum safe concentration, as well as bromide, which can turn into the carcinogen bromate during the treatment process.

Phare says both the federal government and First Nations themselves can and should act to make and keep water sources safe. “I believe we can clean it up,” she says. “The First Nation should be trying to lead the watershed planning, and if the source water is on reserve, they should be trying to prevent contamination. But the federal government should take some responsibility because all reserves are on federal land.”

“The UN has recognized that there is a fundamental human right to water, and that should be a priority,” says Phare.

Phare believes Canadians “need to change how we view water.”

“We need to have a dialogue, and it is climate change that is going to make this happen, as we see more water shortages and more flooding,” she says.

“We need to go back to recognizing that this is a sacred entity and that it is non-renewable,” says Phare. “We need to look after water because it looks after us. Without clean water no one can survive.”

Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the Kelowna Daily Courier and Xtra, among others. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France.