Human Rights Watch calls out Canada over First Nations water crisis

WATCH ABOVE: 16x9’s “As Long as the Waters Flow”

A leading human rights organization says Canada is failing the country’s First Nations communities by not providing the same access to clean and drinkable water as non-indigenous Canadians.

A damning report from Human Rights Watch released Tuesday points out Canada has access to 18 per cent of the world’s fresh water and is among the world’s wealthiest countries, but water quality in dozens of First Nations communities is putting the health of those communities at risk.

READ MORE: Many First Nations communities without access to clean drinking water

The New York-based group pointed to a double standard when it comes to regulations.

“In stark contrast, the water supplied to many First Nations communities on lands known as reserves is contaminated, hard to access, or at risk due to faulty treatment systems. The government regulates water quality for off-reserve communities, but has no binding regulations for water on First Nations reserves.”

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There are 134 water advisories for First Nations communities across the country, the report noted, adding the warnings “persist for years, sometimes decades.”

“They are indicative of the broader systemic crisis that leaves many First Nations persons facing daily challenges just to access safe water for drinking and hygiene—a fundamental human right easily enjoyed by most Canadians,” wrote Amanda Klasing, the author of the Human Rights Watch report.

Among the communities profiled in the 92-page report, titled “Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis,” is the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation — a community straddling the Ontario-Manitoba border which has endured one of the longest boil water orders in Canada.

READ MORE: How an old recessionary plan may be keeping Canada’s First Nations in ‘third world’ conditions

“We’ve been on the bottled water for 19 years now,” Shoal Lake 40 First Nation resident Linda Redsky said in a video released along with the report. “A lot of our kids grew up on that.”

She said untreated water piped into her home was to blame for the eczema and skin infections her 14-year-old foster son, Adam has endured since he was a baby.

“On the fourth or fifth time I went in, [the doctor] asked me ‘do you have treated water in your community?’ I said, ‘no we don’t.’ ‘Well, there’s your problem,’ he said,” Redsky told Human Rights Watch.
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An investigation last year by Global’s 16×9 looked at the quality of the water and spoke with professor Eva Pip, from the biology department at the University of Winnipeg who has been studying water quality in Shoal Lake and the surrounding rivers and bays for decades.

Her studies showed not only harmful parasites and bacteria in the water, but also the potential for toxins to be produced from blue-green algae blooms that could be potentially fatal if the toxins are at a high enough concentration.

READ MORE: Bacteria, parasites and toxins – water quality ‘negligence’ at Shoal Lake 40

While the community faces an ongoing water crisis, the reserve itself was displaced to a man-made island and cut off from the rest of Manitoba in the early 1900s thanks to the construction of an aqueduct to provide water to Winnipeg, some 135 kilometres away.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the community in April, while taking part in the making of a documentary, and helped haul bottled water to homes in the community. The visit happened just weeks after his government promised $4.6 billion in infrastructure investment in indigenous communities — including investment in water and wastewater infrastructure.

That followed an earlier commitment, in December, to work with the Manitoba government and City of Winnipeg to construct an all-weather road that would allow residents to commute to Kenora, Ont., a little over an hour away.

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Human Rights Watch acknowledged the Trudeau government allotting funds to help rectify the water crisis faced by Canada’s indigenous communities but said a “financial commitment alone… will not solve the water and wastewater crisis on First Nations reserves.”

“New investments in water and wastewater infrastructure on First Nations reserves should be accompanied by enforceable regulations, sufficient funds for capital, operation, and maintenance costs for community and household systems, and mechanisms to track progress,” Klasing wrote in the report.

With files from Hannah James and Megan Rowney