Water jugs in the community water center in Grassy Narrows,
Canada. April 13, 2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch
By Marcos Orellana
WASHINGTON DC, Apr 4 2019 (IPS)
While residents across Prince Rupert, British Columbia are once
again able to get safe drinking water from their taps, the
boil-water advisory lifted there in late January should not be
forgotten. Canada is a freshwater-rich country, but the time for
complacency on essential water issues has long passed. Most people
living in Canada have access to safe water. But drinking water
advisories in the country about unsafe water have been concentrated
in First Nation communities.
As of December 31, there were six “boil-water advisories”
and three “do not consume advisories” affecting eight First
Nations Indigenous communities
in British Columbia.
The Prince Rupert boil-advisory
responded to an increase in the levels of cryptosporidium and
giardia, two parasites that cause intestinal health problems. The
contamination is thought to have been brought on by the combination
of a severe drought in British Columbia during the summer and a
large storm surge that soon followed.
Similar environmental and health problems can be expected to
recur. According to
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the onslaught of
extreme weather patterns caused by intensifying climate change will
only continue. The water crisis in Prince Rupert lasted for nearly
six weeks and left 12,000 people without drinking water, according to CBC News. It
has overwhelmingly affected Indigenous communities.
Tom Kertes, a
volunteer organizer with Community for Clean Water–a
grassroots organization in Prince Rupert — told CBC, “The
city almost treated it like an inconvenience. Clean water is not
about convenience or inconvenience. It’s about life and death and
access to clean water is a human right.”
In June 2016, Human Rights Watch
published a 92-page report that found that the Canadian
government had failed to meet a range of international human rights
obligations toward First Nations people and communities in
Ontario by failing to remedy the severe water crisis.
A child in Grassy Narrows First Nation, Ontario, Canada brushes
her teeth with bottled water. Water on First Nations reserves is
contaminated, inadequately treated or hard to access. April 14,
2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch
We found that the water crisis in First Nations communities in
Ontario has persisted for decades. A primary contributor to the
problem is the legal discrimination that exists related to the
regulation and protection of drinking water for First Nations
Access to water is a human right under international law, and
Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982 provides for “essential
public services of reasonable quality.” This means that the
authorities have an obligation—as well as a moral imperative—to
uphold this right.
Provincial and territorial regulations governing safe drinking
water and sanitation, which operate to protect the health of most
Canadian residents, do not extend to First Nations reserves. Other
factors compounding the problem include insufficient and
unpredictable funding, tainted source water, and lack of capacity
and support for water system operators. As a result, water on many
First Nations reserves is not safe.
In 1976, Canada became a party to the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2016, the UN Committee
that monitors compliance with the treaty expressed concern about
“the restricted access to safe drinking water and to sanitation
by the First Nations as well as the lack of water regulations for
the First Nations living on reserves.”
The Canadian government has
taken measures to address the water crisis in First Nations
reserves. In 2018, the Federal government began direct engagement
with the Assembly of First Nations to repeal and replace flawed
drinking water legislation passed in 2013. Funding to address the
problems has increased since our Ontario report was issued, with
the 2018 budget including an additional $173 million. In Ontario,
26 advisories were lifted in 14 communities as of mid-2018.
But as of
February 4, 2019, there were 62 long-term drinking advisories
throughout Canada. The Neskantaga First Nation in Northern
Ontario, for example, has had a
water boil advisory in place for the last 23 years.
Access to water is a
human right under international law, and Canada’s
Constitution Act of 1982 provides for “essential public services
of reasonable quality.” This means that the authorities have an
obligation—as well as a moral imperative—to uphold this right.
It also empowers people to demand that their governments take
concrete and deliberate steps to ensure access to safe and
affordable water for the population.
Canada still needs to do more to secure the right to water for
all of its people and to live up to its commitments to First
The right to safe drinking water is indispensable to a healthy
life. Putting out a water advisory alerts residents to the
problem, but doesn’t do anything to solve it. The federal
government should be working closely with First Nation communities
to ensure that money allotted for water improvement is used
efficiently and that sustainable solutions are created. The
provincial government can help by engaging indigenous communities
and advocating for their right to clean water.
The Canadian government still has a lot of work to do, but it is
critically important for the health of indigenous people to get
the job done.
Marcos Orellana is the environment and human rights director at
Human Rights Watch.
Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Freshwater Canada’s Dirty Water Secret