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Why some First Nations still don’t have clean drinking water — despite Trudeau’s promise

First Nations reserves across Canada struggle to access clean drinking water from their taps. We explain why this problem has persisted and what the Trudeau government is doing about it.

During the 2015 election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate all long-term water advisories on First Nations by March 2021.

Many Indigenous communities have gone for years and years without clean drinking water — living, as one woman put it, “in Third-World conditions in a First-World country.”

Some advisories are so old, explains Dawn Martin-Hill, one of the founders of the Indigenous Studies Program at McMaster University, that “you could have a 16-year-old girl growing up in northern Ontario who has never been able to drink or bathe in the water that they have access to.”

READ MORE: Trudeau’s Liberals benefited from record Indigenous voter turnout in 2015. Can they again?

With 17 months left on the clock, Trudeau’s government has nearly halved the number of long-term advisories — those in place for a year or longer — from 105 down to 56, according to government data.

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However, that data has its limitations: it doesn’t include B.C. or any of the territories. And even if Trudeau eliminates long-term boil water advisories by 2021, experts like Martin-Hill say he won’t have actually addressed the issues that led to them — nor will it mean that all First Nations people have guaranteed, long-term access to clean drinking water.

So why, despite the federal government’s pledge, do some First Nations still not have potable water, and what exactly needs to be done to get it to them?

“I’m still asking that question many years later,” says Martin-Hill, McMaster’s Paul R. MacPherson Chair in Indigenous Studies and a Mohawk woman living in the Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario.

WATCH: Trudeau says government ‘on track’ to fulfill clean-water promise

Trudeau says government ‘on track’ to fulfill clean water promise
Trudeau says government ‘on track’ to fulfill clean water promise

Martin-Hill grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., after her single mother fled Six Nations during the ’60s Scoop to avoid having her children taken from her and placed with non-Indigenous families. It was a hard choice but the right one, Martin-Hill says.

One of the side effects of this move was that Martin-Hill grew up with clean water that flowed easily from the tap. It wasn’t until she was older — and within a week of being back in Six Nations — that Martin-Hill experienced her first boil water advisory.

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She went to university looking for answers:

“How did this inequality happen and who’s responsible and how do we fix it?”

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As she said, she’s still hunting for answers.

Why don’t all First Nations have clean water?

Canadian governments have spent many years and billions of dollars trying to make clean water flow from the taps on First Nations. At any given time, some 100 First Nations are under water advisories, according to non-profit organization The Council of Canadians.

There are three types of advisories: boil water, do not consume and do not use. The most common is a boil water advisory, in which communities are told they should boil all water for at least one minute before drinking, brushing their teeth or cooking and that they shouldn’t use tap water to bathe infants, toddlers or the elderly.

WATCH (2017): First Nations woman calls on feds to address water crisis on reserves

First Nations woman calls on feds to address water crisis on reserves
First Nations woman calls on feds to address water crisis on reserves

The reasons why water on First Nations isn’t potable varies, impacted by everything from the water’s origin to the pipes through which it flows to how remote the community is.

On July 7, Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency over concerns about disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes. A few days later, Eabametoong First Nation followed suit, its chief explaining the decision in a press release on July 15: “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.”

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

In Attawapiskat‘s case, the government earmarked $1.5-million to repair an existing treatment plant and said there are plans for a second system. Eabametoong declared a state of emergency after the water developed a “noticeable foul smell and taste,”however the community has been under a boil-water advisory for nearly two decades. Despite the state of emergency, Eabametoong expected the “long-term” advisory to lift in August because of a new water treatment plant.

As of late September, however, the community was still under an advisory.

Why the solutions are flawed

The federal government has a list of solutions to these long-term boil water advisories, including patchwork repairs, permanent repairs, entire new systems, feasibility studies and better training and monitoring.

During the Maclean’s leadership debate earlier this month, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said he would also end long-term boil water advisories, while Green Party leader Elizabeth May said her party would fulfill all “the requirements on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the murdered missing Indigenous women’s inquiry.” NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has committed to lifting all drinking water advisories, not just long-term ones, by 2021.

Many have made it clear the existing solutions are imperfect.

Take Six Nations, where Martin-Hill lives. The government gave the community money for a treatment plant in 2014, but that was it — “no money to operate it,” she says. With few options, Martin-Hill says the community took the money, built their “state-of-the-art treatment plant and said: ‘We’ll figure it out as we always do.’”

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WATCH (2016): Human Rights Watch blasts inaction in providing safe water to First Nations communities

Human Rights Watch blasts inaction in providing safe water to First Nations communities
Human Rights Watch blasts inaction in providing safe water to First Nations communities

Now, Six Nations has the treatment plant, Martin-Hill says, but people still live without clean drinking water because almost nobody has piping into their houses that can carry in the newly clean water. In other words, only a small percentage of the population gets clean water — everyone else needs to buy big jugs of fresh water.

Additionally, the Trudeau government’s promise focused on “long-term” boil water advisories, not short-and medium-term advisories. While many communities have been dealing with these so-called short-term problems for years, Angela Mashford-Pringle, who works at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the University of Toronto, told Global News in July that such communities are being left out because their advisories are not technically “long-term.”

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

Add in the fact that, while the government may technically be on track for a promise kept, an investigation from Globe and Mail reporter Matt McClearn analyzed more than a decade of government data and found “the overall reliability of the underlying water systems is little improved since the party came to power.”

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READ MORE: Can the Liberals really end boil water advisories on First Nations by 2021?

“There are a lot of systems across the country on First Nations reserves that are in poor shape that aren’t on a boil water advisory, and the risk scores reflect that,” says McClearn.

The risk scores are updated every year, when the government looks at the design of public water systems, how well they are operated and maintained, the associated record-keeping, the quality of the source water and the operators’ qualification to come up with a ranking from one to 10, with 10 being extreme risk.

“The risk scores can tell you about systems that have problems that are not on boil water advisories yet,” McClearn says.

“Just because a community doesn’t have a boil water advisory doesn’t mean that they’re happy with their level of water service.”

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A big chunk of the reason for these issues is money. First Nations get much less from the federal government than they would from the province if they were a municipality of similar size, says McClearn.

“There are a lot of consequences that come along with that. One is that these plants tend to get less maintenance than they need.”

And water treatment plants need a lot of maintenance and technical know-how, says Emma Thompson, who did her masters research on water advisories in First Nations.

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“It’s a really complicated system … especially remote communities would struggle with that,” she says. In fact, her research showed that sometimes, boil water advisories were instituted not because there wasn’t a facility in the community but because there wasn’t a trained operator available.

That these communities are federally regulated stands out, Thompson says — and not in a good way.

“It’s the most decentralized way to manage a drinking water system,” she says. “It’s a really disconnected way to manage that kind of system with (provincial) regulations… a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to help.”

What needs to be done?

People don’t need a lot of information to understand, says Martin-Hill: “We want access to clean water.”

Clean-water access is an issue of living and breathing, she says, an issue of environmental concern and also an issue with deep historical roots.

To understand how this system became so unequal and why First Nations receive less funding for clean water than neighbouring municipalities simply because they are regulated federally and not provincially, you have to go back to the beginning of Canada — to colonization.

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When Parliament passed the Indian Act in 1876, it established the reserve system that Canadians know now. In conjunction with existing treaties made between the government and different First Nations, the act established which tracts of land would be for First Nations people so that settlers could set up farms.

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The government’s stated goal was to force the assimilation of First Nations people and to make them Canadian by stripping them of their land, their culture, their autonomy and — as seen through the residential school system and the ’60s Scoop — their children. The government didn’t give much thought to the land where they sent First Nations, Martin-Hill says.

“They didn’t put in roads, housing or infrastructure because they thought we were going to die out … they never thought we would still be here. The fact that we are is a testimony to our resilience and our strength as a people.”

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Even though colonization “dictates what (First Nations people) have today” with respect to access to clean drinking water, she says it doesn’t have to. “We need to get our land claims settled in a just way and then we would be able to solve our own problems.”