What happens when water systems fail in remote Indigenous communities

Image: U.S. National Archives/Flickr
On September 12, 2019, the water pump at the Neskantaga First Nation's water treatment facility failed, leaving some homes completely without running water and others with water that was not safe to use except to flush toilets. The remote community -- only accessible by plane or winter roads -- declared a state of emergency on September 14 and began evacuation by air of the majority of community members to Thunder Bay, including chronically ill adults and infants. Indigenous Services Canada refused to provide evacuation assistance at the time. A pump was flown in from southern Ontario, and water tests conducted on September 18 and 19 were sufficient to lift the do-not-consume warning. Members began returning on September 23.  

Have you ever tried living with no drinkable water for a week?

According to Human Rights Watch, Indigenous Services Canada officials told Neskantaga that no precedent or policy existed to provide evacuation or other forms of assistance to remote communities affected by a major infrastructure failure. The cost to the community of dealing with the evacuation alone puts it at risk of losing control of its finances.

Human Rights Watch is demanding that the next Canadian government compensate Neskantaga First Nation for the costs associated with evacuating the community after a water infrastructure failure. The government should also have a mechanism to deal with major infrastructure failures in remote First Nations communities.

Let's make sure that there are letters waiting for whoever takes power after the federal election. Write to

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
Public Enquiries Contact Centre
10 rue Wellington
Gatineau QC  K1A 0H4

Email: [email protected]
Phone (toll-free): 1-800-567-9604
Fax: 1-866-817-3977
TTY (toll-free): 1-866-553-0554

In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the impact of serious and prolonged drinking water and sanitation problems for thousands of First Nations people -- Indigenous peoples in Canada -- living on reserves. The findings detailed problems with safe water and sanitation on reserves, including a lack of binding water quality regulations, insufficient funding, faulty or substandard infrastructure, and degraded source waters. The federal government's own audits over two decades show a pattern of overpromising and underperforming on water and sanitation on reserves.

It is good that certain leaders are addressing this as a priority, now we need to force action. 

Image: U.S. National Archives/Flickr

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