Recognized by the United Nations, water and sanitation are fundamental human rights. Despite Canada having the third-largest freshwater reserves in the world, many Indigenous communities lack access to clean, safe drinking water, an issue that has persisted for centuries (The Indigenous Foundation, n.d.). Drinking water advisories are issued in Canada to inform people not to consume contaminated water. These are sent out when the water treatment system isn't working properly or when viruses, bacteria, parasites, or chemical contaminants in the water are causing illnesses and other health issues. Numerous Indigenous peoples still lack access to safe drinking water today, violating the internationally recognized human right to water (Canadian Union of Public Employees, 2022).
Figure 1: Neskantaga First Nation resident holding sign after evacuated over tainted water (The Canadian Press, 2020).
How They are Caused
The Indian Act was first introduced by the federal government in 1876. According to the Act, the government is in charge of constructing and maintaining infrastructure on First Nation reservations, including water treatment facilities and pipes that transport water to dwellings and other structures. Since then, First Nation reserves, including their need for water infrastructure, have been chronically underfunded by the federal government (Canadian Union of Public Employees, 2022). Indigenous peoples' access to clean water has been impacted by governments in many different ways. Indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated to reserves, which were occasionally extremely far from their traditional homelands. Due to the unavailability of clean water locally, communities had to travel considerable distances to obtain it especially with the lack of necessary tools or transportation to assure the safety of water systems. Water sources have also been impacted by the lack of action by the government concerning pollution and industrial incidents brought on by corporations. Additionally, Indigenous peoples are frequently disregarded when it comes to decision-making or when they encounter issues inside their own communities. They are frequently encountered with broken promises when they voice their concerns about the lack of access to clean water (The Indigenous Foundation, n.d.).
Figure 2: Bath water from home in Neskantaga (The Guardian, n.d).
What Communities are Affected
It is difficult to determine which or how many communities are affected by a lack of access to safe drinking water, but during the past several centuries, the majority of Indigenous communities have experienced troubles with their access to safe drinking water (Canadian Union of Public Employees, 2022). The Indigenous communities to whom the federal government is legally and financially obligated to provide clean drinking water are limited. Many Indigenous communities are excluded from these particular efforts. The majority of Métis, Inuit, all communities north of the 60th parallel, the seven members of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, First Nation communities under short-term water advisories, First Nation communities using wells and private water systems and First Nation reserves in British Columbia are all not included in federal tracking statistics, which means that they do not accurately reflect the situation (Canadian Union of Public Employees, 2022).
Figure 3: Residents filling up water buckets (BBC News, n.d).
The Effects on Indigenous Human Health and the Environment
Clean water is important due to the sorts of toxins present in drinking water that are frequently linked to cancer, gastrointestinal problems, skin infections like psoriasis and eczema, and other medical conditions. Since it is difficult to live under a water advisory for years, some individuals get upset and drink the water without boiling it or otherwise purifying it, putting themselves at danger of exposure to toxins (The Indigenous Foundation, n.d.). Additionally, it can be quite expensive to develop or repair the systems. Many Indigenous peoples care for the environment. Indigenous communities are negatively impacted by contaminated water, but the surrounding environment is also negatively impacted. The general quality of life is consequently reduced. Indigenous people's access to traditional food systems and cultural rights is restricted by the lack of clean water, affecting the spiritual significance and value of water. When water is contaminated, it affects rituals, traditional fishing and hunting methods, as well as methods of teaching children and disseminating traditional knowledge (The Indigenous Foundation, n.d.).