Clean drinking water Credit: mrjn Photography / Unsplash

Just weeks after a two months-long shutdown of their water supply due to poisoning by fuel, the roughly 8,000 residents of the Nunavut capital Iqaluit noticed the same bizarre odour in their water that had alerted them to the contamination in the first place.

On January 18, the city of Iqaluit shut down its water treatment plant and reinstated a boil water advisory, admitting fuel was poisoning the water again.

The water crisis in Iqaluit comes at a difficult time, when Nunavut’s resources are already stretched thin by COVID-19. 

Now, Nunavut MP Lori Idlout is calling on the federal government to provide $180 million to resolve the water emergency oince and for all time. 

“I call on your government to respond immediately to fix an issue of basic human rights, access to clean water and sanitation, as the federal government would for any other major Canadian city,” Idlout wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc. “The north should be no exception.”

Idlout described the “ripple effect” of infrastructure challenges, noting the only hospital in Iqaluit was “forced to cancel 30 surgeries and postpone 36 other procedures over an eight-day period”. Nunavut health officials had to send some patients out of the territory.

“Communities experienced a delay of cargo, leaving grocery shelves empty and a glaring absence of fresh food,” Idlout added in her letter. “Recreation facilities, that have brought our community together in these difficult times, had to close. City staff, already exhausted by the ongoing waves of the pandemic, were understaffed and desperate for extra hands to deliver bottled water.”

Idlout spoke to rabble.ca back in Oct. 2021, when the crisis started. At the time, residents were being provided with 12 litres of water per day, in 24 half-litre plastic bottles.  Idlout also used clean river water, which she collected with large jugs—something that would have been impossible without a car.

“It’s still a bit concerning because we’re still not seeing more of a strategic response to ensuring that we have healthy drinking water available sooner rather than later,” she said at the time.  

Now, as residents go back to rationing their allotments of safe water—while boiling fuel-filled tap water—they are left with the nearly impossible task of stretching their limited water supply to cover many needs – prepare food, bathe, and do laundry. 

The allotments provided to residents last fall amounted to roughly just one per cent of the over 1,100 litres the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency estimates a U.S. family uses each day. 

“Nunavummiut in Iqaluit are among many Indigenous peoples living under drinking water advisories. According to the Council of Canadians, First Nations’ water systems are ‘at high or medium risk’ of contamination which the organization states is ‘one of the greatest violations of the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation’,’” Idlout wrote to Minister Leblanc. “Indigenous people across Canada and the people of Iqaluit deserve safe drinking water.”

In her letter, Idlout noted that Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell has called for a new treatment facility and a change in the source of water for the city’s residents. 

Idlout was not available for an interview with rabble.ca due to scheduling conflicts. In a statement from the federal NDP, the party reaffirmed their determination to hold the Liberal government accountable for its promise to end all boil water advisories in Indigenous communities. 

In the meantime, Iqaluit residents are calling for a public inquiry to investigate how the city’s government handled the water contamination. 

Idlout is only one of 338 members of Parliament, but she’s also the only MP Nunavut has. She argues that without government intervention into the crisis and support of water infrastructure reform in the city, water contamination is likely to continue.

We still do not know how being forced to consuming poisoned water, even when it is boiled, will affect the long-term health of the 8,000 residents of Iqaluit. 

In an email, the federal government reaffirmed its mission to provide safe, clean drinking water across the country. 

“Minister LeBlanc and Minister Vandal have been in regular communication with Mayor Bell and the Government of Nunavut to discuss the City of Iqaluit’s Disaster Mitigation Adaptation Fund application,” the email reads. 

“We remain in close contact with the City and the territorial government to keep them apprised of developments and we look forward to more news on this project soon.”

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...