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Indigenous communities and water crises — is a real solution in the works?

A file photo of Attawapiskat.
A file photo of Attawapiskat. (Spencer Wynn/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The federal government has pledged solutions to Attawapiskat‘s drinking water crisis, after the First Nation declared a state of emergency earlier this month due to concerns about disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes in its water.

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan paid a visit to the community on Sunday and said there is a $1.5-million plan for immediate repairs to the existing treatment plant.

His office has also said clean drinking water will be available from a second system.

READ MORE: Water quality concerns spur state of emergency in Attawapiskat

In an email statement to Global News, O’Regan’s press secretary Kevin Deagle said the government is working on long-term solutions.

“We are also committed to working together on a long term, comprehensive community plan, which will include identifying a new water source, completing an addition to reserve and building a new water treatment plant,” the statement read.

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The Indigenous community is not the only one that has declared an emergency over clean drinking water. Eabametoong First Nation in northern Ontario did the same just days after Attawapiskat.

Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno explained the decision in a press release on July 15.

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“The discovery of high levels of trihalomethanes, combined with ongoing issues with our water and wastewater systems, has forced us to declare a State of Emergency to protect the health of our community,” he said.

Eabametoong has been under a boil-water advisory for 18 years. Yesno noted the issue worsened in June, and water from household taps had a “noticeable foul smell and taste.”

Deagle noted in his statement that Eabametoong has a new water treatment plant, and the community’s long-term drinking water advisory should be removed next month.

He added that O’Regan has been in touch with the community over the state of emergency.

Access to clean water an ongoing problem

Access to clean water has been an ongoing problem for several Indigenous communities beyond Attawapiskat and Eabametoong.

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According to non-profit organization The Council of Canada, there are roughly 100 First Nations in the country at any given time that are under water advisories.

Angela Mashford-Pringle, who works at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the University of Toronto, explained to Global News that many Indigenous communities deal with similar problems — and it’s been that way for years.

“When First Nations people were put on reserves, they were forced into areas that were deemed uninhabitable for white,” she said. “Often, they were placed in places were economic natural resource development was going to happen.”

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That meant that the communities were subject to the environmental effects of that development. Mashford-Pringle cited Grassy Narrows First Nation, where a pulp and paper mill led to mercury poisoning the water systems.

She added that another issue perpetuating the problem is a lack of upkeep at water filtration plants.

“They would pay for people to be trained, but they didn’t keep that upkeep, so they wouldn’t give communities enough money to continually have training to have new staff.”

Mashford-Pringle said it’s a misconception that the problems are limited to remote First Nations communities. There are ones near major cities that are also affected.

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“There’s not enough forward-facing knowledge of what’s going on for the government to be pushed into making a change,” she said. “And this is part of the problem.”

READ MORE: ‘We’re not bluffing’: Ontario First Nation urges Trudeau, O’Regan to witness housing crisis

Trudeau government’s 2021 pledge on ‘long-term’ advisories

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has pledged to end all long-term water advisories — ones that have lasted longer than one year — by March 2021.

According to the government’s website, 86 long-term water advisories have been lifted since the Trudeau government came into power. A total of 57 long-term advisories remain.

But holes have been poked in that plan. A December 2017 report from the parliamentary budget officer estimated that it would cost the Liberals at least $3.2 billion to make good on that promise. However, the government has pledged $2 billion for the multi-year commitment.

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Mashford-Pringle said she also finds it concerning the government is focusing on so-called “long-term” advisories as that leaves out many communities.

“Realistically, if you went across the country, quite a few of the 633 First Nations are on either short-term or medium-term advisories. I’m not sure if we’re doing much to change that,” she said.

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She added many communities are on and off shorter advisories for years, but wouldn’t count among the long-term advisories in the government’s pledge.

Angus slams ‘band-aid’ solutions

NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding covers Attawapiskat, told Global News that the 2017 report highlighted that funding for maintenance is lacking in the Liberal plan, which means the water systems solutions may break down again.

Angus said many solutions offered by the government are “band-aid” and temporary, which is increasingly frustrating for Attawapiskat residents.

“We’ve seen kids with horrific skin conditions,” Angus explained. “One mother said she didn’t want to bathe her baby because she got nosebleeds. That’s really appalling.”

He noted problems over water quality have lasted through several governments, such as those of Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, but there has been a lack of action in fixing the root problems.

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“Let’s look at the infrastructure, but start to fix it in a cohesive coherent holistic way so that we’re not going back and having problems developed two years down the road, after the government said mission accomplished,” he said.

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In February this year, Trudeau said the promise to eliminate long-term advisories remains “on track.”

Deagle echoed Trudeau in his statement to Global News, saying the plan remains on track and that it will provide “long-term” and “permanent” solutions to communities.

“Since 2015, we have permanently removed 86 long term drinking water advisories. Now, there are 56,” Deagle said.

“We also *prevented* 126 short-term drinking water advisories from becoming long-term advisories by acting quickly and working with communities on building up their infrastructure and capacity.”

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What are the real solutions?

Mashford-Pringle had similar sentiments about band-aid solutions, rather than real ones when it comes to addressing water sanitation.

She said she’s doubtful communities would receive a new water treatment plant in the near future.

“I can’t see that we would have enough change here to be able to fix the issues that many of our remote First Nations communities in Canada.”

READ MORE: Cat Lake First Nation crisis spotlights health-care struggles of remote communities

Any possible — and permanent — solutions, Mashford-Pringle said, would have to involve truly understanding what truth and reconciliation entails.

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“The government will say it’s honouring its treaties, but I’m not fully convinced they are, or we would have the ability to live on the land without being hurt or in danger of some kind of disease from the water.”

— With files from The Canadian Press