No Clean Water for First Nation Communities: Repeated Settler Colonialism Within the Canadian Liberal Government

Canada holds one fifth of the planet’s fresh water. Moreover, according to the United Nations development program, over 99.8 percent of Canadians have access to clean drinking water and clean water for sanitation purposes.

Yet in March 2016, Health Canada reported that there were 133 drinking water advisories implemented in 89 First Nation communities throughout Canada, excluding British Columbia. Water safety is in no way a new barrier to First Nations communities in Canada. In fact, one community in particular has been under a boil water advisory for two decades.

Following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election, Canada has been internationally praised for its multiculturalism and generosity in welcoming nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the federal government has dramatically failed to provide one of the minimum standards of infrastructure to First Nation people. By failing to provide solutions to the drinking water advisories affecting First Nations communities, the Canadian government under Trudeau continues to perpetuate the nation’s settler colonial ideology.

Canada’s resettlement of refugees is not an excuse to turn a blind eye to First Nation communities who are at risk of becoming refugees themselves if their harsh living conditions continue to worsen on Trudeau’s watch. The Canada Census statistics on First Nation urban migration released 10 years ago, reported a 50% increase in urban migration. This increase was no doubt a result to harsh living conditions on reserves, seeing as the First Nation homeless population increased dramatically in major Canadian urban areas. For example, in Toronto First Nation communities made up for 35% of the homeless population in 2010.

First Nation individuals are treated as second class citizens to Canadians of European descent who have greater ease and access with which to enjoy the privileges of Canada’s natural resources, even though their lifestyles are not as dependent on access to natural resources as those of First Nations communities.

First Nation communities are highly reliant on clean water sources. Unlike most non-First Nation, non-Metis or non-Inuit communities, their livelihoods are largely sustained by fishing, hunting, and trapping. These are cultural practices which are still celebrated and pursued in the rural and remote environments that Aboriginal communities exist in.

In the words of Cheechoo, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation from 1988 to 1994, “our future is based on these waters . . . Any threat to such waters poses a direct threat to our survival.” Indeed, the devastating reports released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 7th 2016 reveal that their state of survival is in critical condition.

HRW identified five major barriers that First Nation peoples face regarding water, some of which include contaminated drinking water, long term (in excess of ten years) water advisories, and health issues including skin infections and disease, as well as exposure to cancerous chemicals. Currently, Canada’s inaction towards the water infrastructural crisis faced by First Nation communities undoubtedly violates the United Nation’s claim regarding everyone’s right to sufficient amounts of safe, affordable, accessible and acceptable quality water.

The argument could be made, considering Trudeau’s financial investments towards clean water in 2016, that the federal government is indeed taking strides in the right direction for First Nation peoples. For instance, $4.6 billion was invested in water infrastructure on World Water day, which fell on March 22nd of 2016. Moreover, $4 million was invested in the Safe Water Project by the Canadian federal government in October.

While the nominal value of the capital that Canada is investing in First Nations communities may seem impressive, financial commitments are hardly enough to make any kind of systemic and sustainable change in regards to the standards of living that First Nations people are subject to.There is a wide variety of critical problems that the Canadian government should remedy in tandem with or even before providing financial support.

For example, First Nation communities are excluded from the strict water regulations that control the quality of running water, regulations that non-First Nation Canadians are protected by under the federal government. In First Nation territories, however, safe drinking water regulations are simply non-existent. For years, the federal government invests money in infrastructure without creating rules and regulations within the environments themselves that would guarantee safe water.

Proper safe drinking regulations need to be combined with the funding that the Liberal government is providing to create pragmatic and proactive change. Unfortunately, the money that has been invested is arbitrarily budgeted in a way that does not ensure coverage of operation and maintenance costs, which does not allow for the proper maintenance of the water infrastructure on reserves. Other problems that are being continuously neglected include increasingly contaminated conditions of water sources and unsupported household water and wastewater systems.

As one could imagine, contaminated water leads to the spread of infectious diseases that require the attention of health professionals. Amanda Klasing tells the Globe and Mail about a mother she spoke to in Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario who could not bathe her own daughter because the water caused a severe skin rash. This is because the well that supplies her neighbourhood contains uranium. The health complications that result from contaminated water such as this often go untreated due to inaccessible health facilities.

To further compound the problem, health facilities are not easily accessible to most First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities. Canadian Maternal Health reports that First Nation women face extraordinary barriers concerning their accessibility to proper maternity health facilities. These barriers manifest in institutional racism and cultural or linguistic barriers within health institutions that dissuade First Nation women from accessing them at all.  Furthermore, malnutrition within reserves make First Nation mothers prone to obesity and gestational diabetes which often transfers to their newborns. In fact, 53% of on-reserve women experience obesity compared to the 30% non-First Nation women in BC alone.  

This inaccessibility to health facilities can also be attributed to a lack of health infrastructure and facilities in the remote areas that First Nations live in, because the cost to maintain such infrastructure is higher than it is in urban locales.

The repeated inequalities of basic living standards within the federal government’s administration that divides First Nation people and settler Canadians, are maintained primarily through Canada’s refusal to ensure clean running water.

The Canadian government’s failure to ensure clean running water in First Nations communities divides First Nation peoples from Canadians who live within the settler state’s system, and represents a failure to provide a basic standard of living to all those who live in Canada. In addition, this perpetuates existing class divides, as First Nation peoples experience symptoms of poverty, health insecurity and disability at disproportionate rates, all of which are further compounded by their lack of access to natural resources. For children alone, the poverty rates on reserves in Manitoba are at 76% and in Saskatchewan they are at 69%. Considering that reserves are excluded from the rest of Canada when compiling poverty statistics for the country, Canada’s poverty rates would be much lower if First Nation communities were accounted for.

More importantly, these inequalities confirm that the founding principle of settler colonialism, which includes eliminating and dehumanizing First Nation, Inuit and Metis societies so that settlers can establish their own societal framework, is continuously being re-enacted within Canadian Liberal federal government.

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