In Curve Lake First Nation, illnesses from what’s believed to be related to water quality have been so systemic that some people don’t believe reporting them would make a difference, according to the community’s chief.
Emily Whetung, the chief of Curve Lake First Nation — just north of Peterborough, Ont., — said she and her family got sick from what’s believed to be related to bad water about seven or eight years ago.
“My husband and I had gone out for dinner, which we haven’t really done since we had kids, and we had some seafood, so we thought it was maybe the seafood,” Whetung told Global News in March.
“And then everybody else got sick. … The whole family got sick at my parents’ house, where I was living at the time.”
Whetung said her family had their well tested and it came back positive for E.coli.
“The logical conclusion is that we all had E.coli from a contaminated well a number of years ago, and it was a really terrible week of being really ill while we figured out what the problem was.”
In her community, Whetung said the general feeling is that people need to be careful about any water that’s consumed. She said most people are either treating their water or buying it bottled.
“I know that there are families in our community who can’t bathe their children or won’t bathe their children in the water,” Whetung said in March.
“I am absolutely aware of families that are concerned about the water, that have (had) adverse reactions to the water they’re using, whether it’s rashes or sores.”
Michael Kirlew, a physician who works predominantly with First Nations clients along the James Bay coast in northern Ontario, said patients citing concerns about their water supply making them sick is a “very regular occurrence.”
“I would say (it’s) at least a couple of times a month, where patients will say that they feel that their water quality is making them sick,” he told Global News. “It’s not in every community, but it’s definitely in certain communities.”
Most commonly, Kirlew said, patients worry that certain skin conditions have been exacerbated by water quality — including eczema, impetigo and cellulitis. And when bad water is combined with issues like overcrowding and an under-resourced health care system, the northern Ontario doctor said it can be “a recipe for disaster.”
“It’s a myriad of health problems that can come at this confluence of inadequate access to clean running water, inadequate access to adequate housing,” he said. “If you don’t have access to those basic, basic things, then your health outcomes are not going to be good.”
For years, First Nations across Canada have suspected that cases of skin conditions, stomach illnesses, cancer, bacterial contamination, birth defects and even deaths could be attributed to poor water quality in their communities.
In a 2016 review of 16 studies published between 2000 and 2015, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan found several health concerns with respect to poor drinking water in First Nations across the country. According to the review, gastrointestinal illnesses, skin problems and birth defects were reported as some of the most common ailments.
Researchers heard about a range of health concerns, said Lori Bradford, one of the review’s authors and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s school of professional development, college of engineering and school of environment and sustainability.
“When soda costs less than water, you can see how that might contribute to obesity and diabetes. Cancers were reported,” Bradford said. “There’s higher levels of mental stress, neurological problems, hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, kidney problems, immune issues and autoimmune diseases, as well as thyroid conditions.”
Bradford said the water advisories can also have mental health effects on First Nations community members, specifically when it comes to safety and cultural concerns.
“It is an obstruction to your daily routine,” she added.
“For some, the boil water advisory is just an ongoing symbol of colonization.”
According to a 2004 United Nations report, the incidence of water-related illnesses is several times higher in First Nations communities than in Canada’s general population, despite the country having one of the lowest rates of waterborne diseases in the world.
As of Sept. 20, there are 45 long-term drinking water advisories in effect in 32 First Nations across the country. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was first elected in 2015, he pledged to end all the advisories by March 2021, but in late 2020, his government said it wouldn’t meet that goal, citing challenges that have been a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Months later, in July, the Canadian government reached an almost $8-billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit launched by three First Nations over clean, safe drinking water. The three communities were Curve Lake, Neskantaga and Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
At the time the agreement in principle was announced, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) minister Marc Miller did not provide a new timeline for when there would be no long-term water advisories, saying he wanted to respect Indigenous communities’ self-determination and their role in the process.
Since November 2015, 117 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted in First Nations across the country, according to ISC. Currently, the latest projected date to lift a long-term water advisory is October 2023, though the dates are still to be determined in 14 communities, according to ISC’s website.
“The evidence is there from a cultural perspective, from an Indigenous worldview, that there is ongoing harm because of the lack of safe drinking water on reserves,” Bradford said.
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“We all have a right to safe, clean drinking water. It’s not being met in some places in Canada.”
Bill Wahpay, a band councillor with Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, tested positive for the gastrointestinal infection H. pylori back in March, while his daughter Kyra Wahpay, 16, received a positive test more than a year ago.
On Sept. 15, Shoal Lake 40’s long-standing boil water advisory was lifted, though it was in place for 24 years since 1997.
“With H. pylori, I had stomach problems, a bloated stomach, I had acid reflux, headaches really bad (and) tiredness,” Bill told Global News.
“It had taken a while for it to actually progress to the stage where I thought I might need some medical help.”
Kyra said she experienced similar issues to her father and went to the doctor due to the discomfort before she was also diagnosed with the same infection.
“I’m grateful that the water treatment plant is finished, and we can finally drink out from the tap here in Shoal Lake 40,” Bill said.
While experts say H. pylori is likely not a direct cause of poor water quality, certain conditions — like a lack of access to running water and inadequate housing — can put people at risk of contracting the infection. H. pylori is relatively less prevalent in Canada than in other countries around the world, specifically developing ones, though research indicates Indigenous communities in Canada are at greater risk of contracting the infection compared with the country’s general population.
The health disparities that relate to a lack of running water do not stop there. Most recently, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ) found COVID-19 outbreaks in First Nations across the country are correlated with the use of cistern water systems — large tanks that are filled weekly with treated potable water and are used by 15 per cent of First Nations households.
“Cisterns typically hold up to 1,600 litres of water — a quarter of what a family of four uses in a week when they have access to piped water,” the IIJ’s research read in a collaborative report by the Yellowhead Institute.
“Households that rely on cisterns are forced to conserve water, which impedes their ability to follow public health guidelines that call for increased handwashing and household cleaning.”
In order for First Nations’ health to improve, Kirlew said Canadians need to challenge their colonial belief systems and ask themselves why it’s acceptable for Indigenous communities not to have access to clean, running water.
“Change doesn’t only come by getting information — it comes by challenging the belief systems,” he said.
“Canada needs to ask itself, why is it OK that Indigenous people don’t have access? Why are we comfortable with that?”
Sol Mamakwa, the Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Kiiwetinoong, represents 31 First Nations, 16 of which have boil water advisories. He said water worries are a constant issue and that he hears about health concerns related to water on a quarterly basis.
However, despite the ongoing problems, Mamakwa said he doesn’t feel like the provincial government listens when issues are brought forward for discussion.
“Anything inside the reserve is the responsibility of the federal government, and the province will not fund anything on reserve,” he added.
“When we talk about access to a basic human right, which means access to clean drinking water, they won’t even acknowledge that. They use jurisdiction as an excuse to be complacent or not to do anything.”
Another part of the problem in addressing the water crisis is that governments aren’t tracking or studying water-related illnesses in Indigenous communities, making the full scope of the issue unknown to authorities.
Recently, the IIJ contacted dozens of organizations, including federal and provincial branches of government, that keep health data across Canada and found none were collecting information on how often people living on reserves get sick or die from water-related illnesses.
Some critics believe the data gap is purposeful because it allows government officials to duck responsibility.
“There’s always a rule that says, ‘No data, no problem,’” Kirlew said. “Is there a systematic effort being established to gather this data? I don’t know. … You may not have the data, and that’s because colonial systems don’t regard the people that they’re collecting the data from.”
In an earlier interview with the IIJ, Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins—James Bay, said the data gap is a “deliberate black hole.”
“This is all about protecting the government from liability,” he said previously. “If they don’t track it, there’s no evidence.”
In January, ISC Minister Marc Miller agreed there needs to be more information available on the effects of poor water quality in First Nations, though he denied that the government benefits from the data gap.
“Certainly, we need better water data,” he told the IIJ previously. “There’s no incentive in hiding information. There’s no incentive in not collecting information.”
Months after the IIJ published its findings, a spokesperson with ISC told Global News that the tracking of waterborne disease is conducted at a “local level.” The spokesperson, Megan MacLean, said if an environmental public health officer finds that drinking water quality isn’t safe, they immediately recommend for a drinking water advisory to be issued.
“Linking health outcomes to specific elements of the environment, such as drinking water, is difficult,” MacLean said.
“Part of the complication is that food, water, animals and other elements of the environment can all be possible sources of infection from a wide variety of enteric pathogens. It is not possible to know the transmission source of a pathogen without an investigation, which seldom occurs unless a specific cluster or outbreak has been identified.”
Shirley Williams (Migizi-ow-Kwe) is an Anishinaabe-kwe Elder and a professor emeritus in Indigenous studies at Trent University who’s from Wikwemikong First Nation but is currently living in Peterborough, Ont. In her culture, she said, water is sacred and it’s “devastating” for some community members how people can be disrespectful toward it.
“Water is alive, water is spirit,” Williams said. “We need to (provide) money in order to have facilities so that everybody can have clean water.”
For Bradford, there needs to be more research done on the health effects of bad water in First Nations that meaningfully includes communities. In the past, she said, scientists approached this type of research with a colonial view, which hasn’t been helpful for First Nations across Canada.
“I think we need a wider acceptance of Indigenous sciences, Indigenous experiences as valid evidence to help drive our decision-making,” she said.
“It does affect people’s livelihoods, their mental health, their socioeconomic positions. We think in Canada that we’re this place of so much fresh water and opportunity, but in some places in Canada, it’s third-world conditions that we need to do something about.”
Kirlew said all Canadians need to take a look in the mirror and reflect on how their belief systems have been shaped by colonization.
“Everybody needs to do that collective look in the mirror and see how we’ve been covertly colonized into shaping the way that we view certain people,” he said.
“This has nothing to do with a lack of awareness or a lack of education because these are not new issues.
“The problem is we have a belief system that we are adhering to that continually devalues Indigenous lives.”
— with files from Annie Burns-Pieper, Michael Wrobel, Emma Wilkie, Declan Keogh and Patti Sonntag (Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University)
Researchers: Erica Endemann, Lila Maître, Karina Zapata, Noel Harper, Carol Eugene Park, Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Angela Amato, Jaida Beaudin-Herney, Anukul Thakur
With additional research by students at Carleton University, Concordia University, First Nations University of Canada, Humber College, University of Regina, MacEwan University, Mount Royal University, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), University of British Columbia and University of King’s College
See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits and more information about the consortium on the Clean Water, Broken Promises website.