Wednesday marks World Water Day, a day raising awareness of the more than 2 billion people around the world living without access to safe water, including many First Nations communities in Canada.
The federal government says 138 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since November 2015, although some short-term boil water advisories have also slipped into the long-term category during that timeframe.
As of Feb. 3, 2023, there were 32 long-term boil water advisories in 28 communities in Canada. The majority of them were in Ontario, with 24 advisories in 21 communities; Saskatchewan had five remaining advisories in four communities. Manitoba has three remaining long-term boil water advisories: Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, Shamattawa First Nation and Tataskweyak Cree Nation. The federal government says water treatment plant upgrades are underway in those three communities.
Mark Calzavara, the national water campaigner with the Council for Canadians, says the problem has been decades in the making and shouldn’t still exist in 2023.
“Drinking water is the federal government’s responsibility and previous governments, going back as far as the eye can see, didn’t do their jobs,” Calzavara said.
“It’s outrageous that it’s gone on so long and there’s no settler community in Canada that would tolerate that or be forced to put up with that and yet we can say, ‘just another year, just another two years’ to our First Nations Treaty partners and expect that they’ll just take it,” Calzavara said.
“It’s not acceptable and we have to fix it faster than we are.”
He said the Trudeau government should be spending more money on the maintenance and training of water operators working in water treatment plants in First Nations communities. Otherwise, new water treatment plants could become at risk of being ineffective if they aren’t adequately staffed and maintained.
“They were great at the beginning in the first few years and we warned the government that they didn’t have enough money scheduled, that they didn’t spend enough money to get the job done in five years,” Calzavara said.
“I would be shy to say that (the 2025 goal) is doable until I see the government really reinvest in making this a priority again.”
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Patty Hajdu, the federal Minister of Indigenous Services, said the federal government’s role is to provide expertise, funding, equity and support builds through the feasibility to construction phase.
“But at the end of the day, it’s the chief and council that lifts those advisories,” Hajdu said. “Our hope is that we’ll see in the next months to come another 10 that will be lifted shortly.”
First Nations residents without clean drinking water despite treatment plant upgrades
Hollow Water First Nation, situated along the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg, has lifted its boil water advisory. It received upgrades to its water treatment plant through federal funding in 2018.
However, Chief Larry Barker tells Global News 34 homes still aren’t connecting to the main water line, including his own. Those residents are relying on trucked water, which is then put into cisterns or holding tanks.
Lisa Raven has lived in Hollow Water for about 20 years and is one of the families still relying on a cistern.
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“Today we still don’t drink the water that comes out of our taps, we still buy bottled water on a regular basis and use that for cooking, everything other than laundry and showering,” Raven told Global News Wednesday.
“Even my plants, I’ll use bottled water to water my plants.”
She says her tank has only been cleaned once in the past two decades, and she has concerns about its safety. She believes her recurring issues with eczema may be linked to the water quality.
“You’re bringing good, clean water, but you’re putting it in a cistern that hasn’t been cleaned or disinfected in years or on a regular basis,” Raven said. “So to me, that kind of defeats the purpose.”
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