Why is water such an issue in Canada?

Muriam Fancy
Founder & Director of Indigenous Relations
One Nation, Two Worlds

The Indian Act was formulated for the purpose of permitting policy to maintain equality for Aboriginals in Canada through its written clauses. For example, in section 81(1) called the Powers of Council, it explains how the band council must make laws consistent with the Act or any regulations made by the Governor or Minister for “(l) the construction regulation of the use of public wells, cisterns, reservoirs and other water supplies;”. If this wasn’t enough, in 2009 the ‘Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act’ was made. The act lays out encouraging policies like 4(1)(b) “the protection of sources of drinking water from contamination” or (c) “the location, design, construction, modification, maintenance, operation and decommissioning of drinking water systems;”. However, case studies like with the one with Attawapiskat First Nation who declared a state of emergency in 2011 because of water contamination and lack of running water through taps demonstrate the violation o f those policies. The MP of Timmins-James Bay explained the state of Attawapiskat First Nation as “It was like stepping into a fourth world.”

The Aboriginal s connection to water is not one of just necessity, but also a spiritual bond. They are the “caretakers of Mother Earth” and hence have a responsibility to take care of all the gifts given (water, air, and fire). We need to understand first the Aboriginal connection to water to further understand how the lack of access to water is not just a physical detriment but also a spiritual one. According to Aboriginal beliefs, water is the most sustaining gift given from Mother Earth as it is her life line and blood line that runs through the land. Water is respected in the sense that it cleanses not only the people who drink from the water but all living things.

In 2012, the United Nations held a conference on sustainable development. Canada along with other countries internationally had consensus at this conference for the sustainable goals that were deliberated. Canada currently lacks structured national water laws and quality standards. Presently our system runs on the maintenance of provincial water policies for safe drinking water. Canada has adopted guidelines that can be implemented in various degrees within provinces and territories. Hence, it can be deduced that water protection or even quality from one side of the country is vastly different both in policy, quality, and access. The only federal legislation is from the Indian Act, a clause in regards to allowing Chiefs and band councils to make bylaws governing the regulation of public wells, reservoirs, and other water supplies. However, currently there has not been any bylaws that have been passed to allow such provisions to occur.

Chief Justice Lamer in the Supreme Court of Canada who outlined the right to security is a violation when nation state actions/inactions result in physical or psychological harm. An example of a community facing extreme water sanitation and access issues is Attawapiskat in northern Ontario. This community has needed to update their obsolete intake decontamination system which takes water from a lake nearby. However, because there is a lack of infrastructure, the community members literally have to get buckets from the decontamination center on site and bring buckets of water back home. The improper sanitation of water in all communities can result in diseases like whooping cough, MRSA, diarrhea (a big issue with children), staphylococcus aureus, impetigo, reparatory and digestive tract (gastrointestinal) infections, skin infections (i.e. rashes all over the body which was an issue in Attawapiskat) and kidney infections. These health concerns in Attawapiskat specifically also come from the fact that members in the community have to use a pail for the washroom because there is no indoor plumbing. Charlie Angus who is an MP mentioned that the lack of self worth for young people as a consequence of situations such as the one where they are forced to use a pail for the hygiene, purposes. The connection between lack or non existing access to water is directly affecting community members both physically and psychologically.

*Photo Reference: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/shoal-lake-40-first-nation-road-manitoba-1.3368558 *

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