Access to safe and clean water in Indigenous communities needs to be included as part of the basket of goods and services guaranteed in the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Purple-hued skies over Fort Albany river during ice breakup season.
Credit: Sarah Hookimaw Scott
Published On: November 8, 2018

As a child living in my First Nation community, I used to walk to the freshwater stream with my great grandmother to bring water home because we did not have running water. In the wintertime, it was harder to get water because the stream and the community water pipe were frozen. Instead, we would get buckets of snow to melt in our homes.

Now that I live in the city, I can easily access water and I never have to worry about boil water advisories. Boil water advisories are warnings to the whole community not to drink or cook with the water unless boiled over a minute to kill harmful viruses or bacteria. For many, safe and readily accessible water is not viewed as a luxury unless you live in an Indigenous community. Despite these issues, many Indigenous peoples choose to stay in their communities to maintain their family connections, community, culture, and language.

No one should sacrifice so much just to have access to clean drinking water that is readily available in non-Indigenous communities. This is the reason why I felt troubled in reading the Opportunity for All – Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy because access to safe and clean water was not included as part of the basket of goods and services. Without water as part of the basket of goods, we are taking for granted the luxury of water and ignoring many Indigenous communities who are dealing with boil water advisories or cannot access their water at all. This injustice has been going on in Indigenous communities for years and decades.

Across Canada, over one hundred Indigenous communities have been under boil water advisories. For example, Grassy Narrows is a First Nation community in northwestern Ontario whose waterways were poisoned by lumber mill pollution from the early 1960s and 1970s. The consequences of this callous act left residents with mercury poisoning and their local economy in ruins. Today, multi-generational residents are dealing with long-term physical and mental health issues due to the environmental racism. Although I am not from Grassy Narrows, I feel solidarity with Indigenous communities across Canada as an Indigenous person and human being. I am also angry that it took over 40 years for the provincial government to recognize Grassy Narrows’ human right to water in 2016 and commit to clean up the toxic watershed. However, it is important to ensure that the new government remains committed as well.

When I heard Prime Minister Trudeau promise to end all boil water advisories in Indigenous communities by 2021, I felt cautiously hopeful but I also thought that I would believe it when I see it. I became less hopeful when I learned that the David Suzuki Foundation, in partnership with Council of Canadians monitoring the federal government’s progress, reported that the work done thus far is not on track to fulfill its 2021 commitment.

I would like to say that I am surprised but I am not. Indigenous communities have been fighting for a long time to address the ramifications of colonial policies that maintain substandard conditions such as the lack of clean water. Since the signing of treaties between Canada and Indigenous nations across the land, which paved the way for resource extraction and development from natural resources on Indigenous lands, the treaty partner who largely benefited from these activities is non-Indigenous. This is why, many say, poverty is made.

If the Poverty Reduction Strategy is to make a difference in First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, access to safe and clean water needs to be included as part of the basket of goods and services. In the meantime, you can support clean water in Indigenous communities by taking action. Sign the petition at David Suzuki Foundation to urge the government that access to safe drinking water is a human right and an act of reconciliation.

 — Honarine Scott is Omushkego Cree from Fort Albany First Nation, Treaty #9 and is the Healing Programs Coordinator in the Indigenous Ministries Circle.