Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has ended its boil water advisory, signifying the beginning of a new era for one Indigenous community after nearly 25 years of limited access to clean drinking water.
The community that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border has had a boil water advisory in effect since 1997 and, until 2019, had no direct road connection to the outside world. Thanks to a new water treatment and distribution system, it is one of more than 109 communities that have lifted their long-term drinking advisories since 2015, according to the latest data from Indigenous Services Canada.
Experts say Canada still has a long way to go.
“It could be measured in years because not only is it the current boil water advisories as they exist, but we also need to make sure that the facilities that are operating remain safe and remain regulated and (are) operated properly,” said Dr. Graham Gagnon, director for the Centre for Water Resources Studies at Dalhousie University.
As of Wednesday, the federal government says 51 long-term boil water advisories remain in 32 communities across the country. Last year, the federal government announced $616.3 million in funding over the course of six years aimed at increasing maintenance support for the water and wastewater infrastructure.
But Gagnon said that more funding is needed to hire and train staff to properly manage new water treatment and distribution systems, adding “there is a need for innovation on how funding is delivered.”
“Oftentimes when funding announcements are made, they’re sometimes only delivered to the federal engine, if you will, as opposed to ensuring that it gets out to the community and ensuring that the community has the resources to deliver safe water,” he said.
It’s a tough process. Public water systems are typically tested and regulated by provincial authorities. But First Nation territories aren’t considered under provincial protections.
The Indian Act places them under federal authority, barring them from financing and supporting their own water systems.
Moments before lifting the advisory, Shoal Lake First Nation Chief Vernon Redsky said it’s been a “long struggle” for community members, who spent almost two decades with no land connection to major routes and were forced to take their car on a barge trip to reach clean water.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a lot of years,” he said. “It’s about time we have something in place for clean water, members, youth, elders.”
Experts say it’s almost impossible to tell how long it will take to lift the remaining 51 boil water advisories, and many First Nations reserves have already gone decades without clean drinking water.
Chantelle Richmond, Western University’s Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and the Environment, said this is partly because of how easy it has been in the past for the federal government to overlook the needs of Indigenous communities.
“The bigger question about ending the water security crisis that we see in First Nation communities is political will and political will to address the long-term outcomes of the continued dispossession of Indigenous people,” she said, adding that more remote First Nations communities “are easier to ignore.”
The reality is that many reserves still lack access to physicians, nurses and adequate health care and face food insecurity. Some, like Shoal Lake up until 2019, remained cut off from the rest of the country because of a lack of access.
Mining, oil pipelines and forestry developments are also all too common on First Nations reserves. As long as they continue, Richmond, who is of the Biigtigong Anishinaabe tribe, said there will always be a risk to safe drinking water.
“It’s very easy to push the concerns of marginalized people to the side because they’re accustomed to being marginalized. And that is a process of internalizing racism, learning to expect less,” she said.
“And unfortunately, I think many Indigenous communities have begun to accept that marginalization — that doesn’t make it right.
“This is a major human rights failure.”
As the country thinks about building communities and building safe water systems, Richmond said First Nation communities need to be “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to making important decisions.
“As long as Indigenous people don’t have self-determination over development happening in and around their communities, then I think we’re going to continue to see more of the same,” she said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who is currently seeking re-election, had initially promised to eliminate all long-term advisories by March 2021. But a new action plan presented to Parliament in May pushed the date until 2023-24, adding that it will take until 2025-26 to ensure long-term solutions for a stable drinking water supply in some of the affected nations.
Jagmeet Singh, who leads the New Democratic Party, blasted Trudeau on Wednesday for his failure to deliver on his 2015 promise.
“There are kids that can’t turn on the tap and drink clean water because of that broken promise,” he said.
Singh has previously vowed to end all boil water advisories faster than the Liberals if he is elected prime minister, but has yet to explain how.
Meanwhile, the Conservative’s platform says the party will commit to recognizing safe drinking water as a “fundamental human right” and ending the long-term advisories by working with Indigenous communities to find new approaches to protecting water systems.
The United Nations has also adopted its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which promises “clean water and sanitation” for everyone on the planet by the year 2030. The latest report, which came out last year, lays out a blueprint to solve the world’s water crisis and has the support of over 193 countries, including Canada.
Miriam Diamond, an earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News that “it’s a good step in the right direction,” that will provide First Nations communities with leverage to put pressure on the federal government to act faster.
She said “it has to” work, but noted it will take a lot of effort by the federal government and First Nations communities.
Working with provinces, she said could be a part of the solution.
“I am not amongst those people that say we don’t need government oversight,” she said. “We need a bureaucracy. But we need an efficient bureaucracy.”
— With files from Global News’ Daina Goldfinger, Skylar Peters and Will Reimer, and The Canadian Press