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Okanagan Indian Band files lawsuit against federal government over contaminated drinking water

Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis say the First Nations community is suing the federal government over water contamination.
Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis say the First Nations community is suing the federal government over water contamination. Global News

A First Nations community in B.C. says it is suing the federal government over contaminated drinking water.

The Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) says the lawsuit, filed in Vancouver federal court on Thursday against the Attorney General of Canada, stems from outdated water systems that are in dire need of upgrades.

The problem, according to OKIB Chief Byron Louis, has been going on for years, but he claims little has been done to stop septic-field wastewater from contaminating groundwater wells.

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In a 38-page statement of claim, the OKIB makes several claims, including “a declaration that Canada has breached its fiduciary duty owed to the plaintiffs in relation to the creation and management of their respective reserves by creating and sustaining unsafe drinking water conditions on the plaintiffs’ reserves so that the reserves cannot be used for the purposes for which they were set aside.”

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OIB statement of claim, filed August 15 2019

“The federal government has put the lives of our people at risk,” Louis said in a press release.

The OKIB says its current drinking water systems were constructed in the 1970s, according to standards specified by what was then known as Indian Affairs Canada.

The OKIB says the water systems rely on groundwater wells, which supply untreated water to hundreds of homes. The wastewater from those homes goes to individual septic fields, which may be contaminating the groundwater wells.

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The OKIB said fecal coliforms are a significant source of contamination and that a joint water management study in 2017 estimated the cost of upgrades at $45 million.

Further, the OKIB said a “startling result” came from an expert assessment issued by the federal government in 2010, stating that “all of the drinking water systems were ranked [on] an eight out of 10 on a scale of potential risk to human health.”

Since 2010, the OKIB said only one of seven water systems has been upgraded.

The OKIB also said the band’s largest drinking-water system is currently under a do not consume order.

READ MORE: Water quality concerns spur state of emergency in Attawapiskat (July 10, 2019)

“We have lost faith in a system that I would characterize as negligent,” said Louis.

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“We are stuck in limbo between federal policy that underfunds our system and provincial infrastructure resources we cannot access.

“The federal government is simply not serious about safe drinking water for First Nations communities. Our frustration is felt across our community and likely across the country by other First Nations. We have to act.”

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Louis added: “We are concerned that it will take a crisis like a death or sickness from contamination before the federal government takes any action — other than constant delay. This is unacceptable in a developed country.

“It’s really an issue of equality — if you can turn on the tap in Kelowna and not worry the water is safe, it should be the same in our community.”

The OKIB says the lawsuit will hopefully compel the federal government to ensure water infrastructure that meets current standards.

“It’s a health and equality issue, one that the federal government can’t ignore any longer,” Louis said.

Global News has reached out to Indigenous Services Canada for comment, but did not hear back by press time.

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