Water as a Fundamental Right: Ep. 121
Note: Portions of this transcript have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Rick Harp: Welcome to MEDIA INDIGENA, the Summer Edition. I’m Rick Harp.
‘The summer edition,’ you ask? ‘What does that mean?’ Well, let’s just say, beginning this episode, right ‘til the end of August, this podcast will take on a largely retrospective feel as we revisit some of the round table’s more enduring topics. Subjects too big to be accommodated by any one-off discussion. Which is why we thought, ‘Why not group them all together in one place?’ A deeper dive, you might say.
And speaking of deep dives, water is the subject of our first summer show. From water as a fundamental right—that of treaty, as well as humanity—to more nitty-gritty matters of funding, infrastructure, and accountability, we ran the gamut on this topic in the two-plus years of this podcast.
We begin with Amanda Klasing, a Senior Researcher with Human Rights Watch. She spoke to me in June 2016 about their report, Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis.
Harp: Now, as I said, many, including the Canadian government itself, have documented this problem. What has your research afforded you in terms of insights about how we move forward?
Amanda Klasing: There’s a number of things that can be done differently. Of course, we know there needs to be money invested, and it’s great that there’s a government that has made some significant commitments in this regard. But, in the past, there’ve been significant commitments as well—billions of dollars invested over the last few decades and yet the progress hasn’t been made in a way that is consistent and seen across communities.
And part of that is that the government really needs to work on developing indicators of success and be very transparent about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, where it’s being invested, so communities can really look for accountability. They can be empowered to seek or to hold the government accountable to the commitments they’ve made.
But one of the things that we also are very concerned about is the persistent lack of regulations on reserve. So if you live on reserve, you do not have the same safe drinking water protections than if you live off of reserve. And that’s a discrimination in law, and it leads to discrimination in fact when you look at the outcomes.
There was a Safe Drinking Water [for First Nations] Act that was passed in 2013, that would have enabled the regulation setting. The problem with that act is that—well, there were a number of problems—but communities felt that they were very much left out of the consultation process. And there’s some concerns that we had with that act. And so the fact that the act was passed, doesn’t mean that the government has met its obligations. There do need to be safe water protections put in place, but it needs to be done in a collaborative and consultative manner.
And communities need to be given the resources to actually meet safe drinking water standards. So you can’t expect communities to overnight be able to operate within a regulatory framework when their infrastructure has been failing or has failed for years.
Harp: Well, speaking of resources, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate all boil water advisories on reserves across Canada by 2020. And towards that, he’s budgeted a total of $2.24 billion over the next five years—or over less time now, because the promise was made in the budget earlier—and this is towards water and wastewater infrastructure and management. How far does that go toward meeting the need in terms of these resources you speak of?
Klasing: It’s wonderful that that commitment has been made, but by the government’s own assessment of water assets, that gets us maybe halfway. And, there’s ongoing investments that need to be made for operation maintenance.
So five years is a really helpful marker for hopefully ending some of these long-term boil water advisories, but this amount of money and that amount of time is not going to end the water crisis on reserve. It may lift some of these boil water advisories, but there needs to be a long-term plan for addressing all of the drinking water concerns across communities.
I want to remind you that not all communities are serviced by water systems. Some communities are serviced only by household water systems, or by other types of water processing that may not fall within the INAC infrastructure funding, and may not be a part of the asset assessment. So just looking at that component of the water crisis won’t ensure that all First Nations people living on reserve have access to safe drinking water. So the government needs to put in place a long-term plan for actually meeting that goal, making sure everybody has the same access to services.
Harp: And there’s a jurisdiction dimension to this as well. Your report notes that, for the most part, source water protection falls under provincial law in Canada. How does that factor into the challenges we’ve discussed so far?
Klasing: You know, as source water degrades over time, engineering and technology can keep up with treatment of most contaminants, but it becomes increasingly more expensive and more labour intensive to treat water. And you risk other types of concerns, disinfectant byproducts. The best thing to do is to have clean-ish water to begin with that you’re treating.
And when communities on reserve can’t really control or even engage in processes that are going on in their watershed, but not within their own communities, they can’t really play the role they need to in ensuring that their watersheds are protected. There is some source water protection that can be happening on a reserve, but it’s not sufficient to address the real watershed problems that are facing many of these communities. And like you said, there’s a jurisdictional issue: that starts to engage provincial authorities rather than federal authorities.
Harp: Now, according to your own report, just over a third of the water advisories in place in Ontario, as of 2015, they’d been in effect for a decade or longer. You know, the fact that this has been allowed to go on for this long in a so-called developed country, to the point where it’s effectively become normalized, any insight into what allows this travesty to continue?
Klasing: It’s really difficult to understand, just from a human level. When you look at a country that has so many resources, both financially and natural resources.
But looking into the details, the fact that there is a gap in regulations on reserve allows substandard systems to exist. In the 90s, when there were a number of commitments made and money invested in building systems, there were systems that were built that would not have been acceptable if they were built off reserve, if they’d been built in the province. They would not have met the regulations at the time. And yet they were built anyways. And in some instances—Shoal Lake 40 is a great example—these systems were put on boil water advisory within two years of their construction because of this regulatory gap. They shouldn’t have been built the way they were built. And yet there were no protections in place to ensure that they weren’t built that way. I mean, that’s crazy, it’s just insane, when you actually lay it out that way. So that’s one, I think, big reason why this continues to happen, is that there just isn’t the protection there.
But I also find the structure of how communities are able to respond to crises very frustrating from an outsider perspective. And I can imagine leadership finds it even more frustrating. They can identify the problem with their system. They can put a project proposal in, to ask for help from the federal government. And then they can languish on a priority ranking framework while they’re waiting and waiting and waiting for the funding to actually fix the problem in their community. And so it’s a really solvable problem that has been allowed to persist for so long.
Harp: Now, obviously Human Rights Watch took this issue on because of water’s status as a human right. But you could argue that any right matters only to the extent that you can take action on it. What practical recourse do First Nations have here in Canada when it comes to asserting their right to clean and safe drinking water?
Klasing: Well, you know, the rights to water and sanitation surprisingly are relatively new rights under the international human rights legal regime. It was only in 2010 that the UN General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized these as human rights under certain treaties.
And Canada at first was resistant to that recognition. And it’s only been in the last couple of years that Canada has changed its approach to these rights. So I would say, in practice, it’s an uphill battle to use kind of a legal framework to enforce these rights. But even though the human rights legal regime and international level is more soft law, there’s a lot of really strong advocacy opportunities that Indigenous people can utilize within the United Nations system.
And one thing is that, every so often, United Nations human rights bodies reviews a country’s record: are they actually meeting the obligations they said they’re going to? That happened this February in Geneva. Canada’s record was reviewed, and a number of Indigenous women actually traveled to Geneva to petition directly to the committee to look at this issue and make recommendations. And I’m glad to say that the committee came up with some very strong— strong for the United Nations—language, strong language toward Canada to really address this discrimination and access to water and sanitation.
In addition, another treaty body will review Canada very shortly in October. There are a number of United Nations special mandates that cover these issues, and are interested in crises or concerns where countries should be able to meet the water and sanitation needs of their population and aren’t. And so the United Nations system is a mechanism for increasing advocacy and really building the voice of Indigenous peoples.
Domestically, you know, I’m not a domestic attorney, I don’t have all of the legal avenues that could be employed, but certainly it is worth considering how they could possibly enforce the right to water and sanitation within Canada’s legal structure.
So if we can now speak of water in a human rights context, what about inherent rights to water affirmed by treaties? That’s the subject of this next round table excerpt from October 2016, featuring freelance writer, clothing designer, and filmmaker Colleen Simard, along with child health and welfare advocate Conrad Prince. Here, we discuss an article that suggests an inevitable showdown between provinces and First Nations over who ought to have ultimate control over water.
Harp: A fight over rights to water in the West could be brewing according to a recent piece in The Globe and Mail. Its provocative lead reads as follows: “Alberta’s provincial government and several First Nations appear headed for a showdown over who controls water on Aboriginal lands.” One that risks leaving some reserves without water during droughts.
And drought is what seems to have motivated the province to push for clarity—dare I say, certainty—as to who ultimately gets to control access to water and when. The province wants First Nations to operate according to a licensing scheme, which allocates exclusive access to water based on how long you’ve held that license. Thing is, most First Nations in Alberta don’t hold these licenses, and so they fear that by agreeing to them, they’d effectively be last in line when times got tough.
Now, Conrad, a senior bureaucrat for the province quoted in The Globe and Mail, he argued that Alberta needs this monopoly over licensing because “it would be very difficult to achieve our ecological and environmental outcomes otherwise.” What do you make of that argument?
Conrad Prince: I don’t think it actually holds a lot of weight, insofar as when they talk about a monopoly, and when it actually comes down to provincial jurisdictions, where it actually has no, and/or has little impact, and it has to be proven in a court of law, that they can actually have rights over top of Indigenous people. So I don’t think that it actually holds a lot of weight right now.
Harp: I thought you were going to say it doesn’t hold a lot of water, but uh…
Prince: Yeah, that was a missed opportunity right there, right?
Harp: Okay. But, at the same time, things aren’t in court. I don’t believe there has been a court case exclusively about water. So what happens in the meantime?
Colleen Simard: Well, I’m just thinking, it’s kind of ridiculous to me to think that the province is trying to negotiate with First Nations, because First Nations need to negotiate on a nation-to-nation basis. We are nations. We need to negotiate with the federal government, not the province.
And I think they’re doing the right thing by being suspicious. Are you going to sign away your rights? You know, I’m glad that they’re holding off and they’re not signing anything. It’s like the treaties, right? Historically, don’t sign the papers: you might be giving away some of your rights.
Harp: Yeah, well, and that’s the thing. One thing the Globe article did not really discuss was the possibility of litigation over this. And, I managed to consult an amazing, short little read on this. It’s called Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights, written by Merrell-Ann Phare. And it reminded me that, basically, the treaties are—the historical treaties anyway, not the modern ones—they’re actually silent when it comes to water. And then, you need a clear and plain intention: in other words, you need to explicitly remove the right and get someone to sign, to agree to that, if you’re going to claim in court that no such right exists on behalf of Indigenous peoples. Is that how you understand it too, Conrad?
Prince: Well, I mean, when you look at the historical treaties, they’re interpreted in a very broad manner, meaning that they’re not comprehensive like the modern day treaties, where everything is now included in that. So, I would suspect that in a court of law, that they would actually be interpreted as part of those rights, just as land would be a part of those rights, too. So I couldn’t see a court of law excluding First Nations water rights.
Simard: And I just think, when you look at it, it’s a can of worms that no one wants to open. There’s a part in the article where this law professor David Percy says their water use was largely overlooked for most of the past 120 years. I think that’s misinformation. I think he doesn’t understand himself that they didn’t want to negotiate this. I think First Nations do have a right to it. And I think they just didn’t want to deal with it.
And now they’ve come to a point where they have to deal with it. And in what way do they do it? Are they going to try to get us to sign something, you know, agree to something? Pull the ol’, y’know, switcher-rooney? I don’t know. [laughs] I’m very suspicious of it all.
Prince: I think the devil’s in the details, and by assigning much of the First Nations the classification of junior water licenses, and then asking First Nations to trust the provincial government in times of water restriction is—when actually, you know, the treaties in and of themselves and the relationship with the province are strained, I think they’re asking a lot of the First Nations communities.
Simard: It’s asking to take away your rights. It’s another way of taking away our rights to something that we should be in control of. And then those junior licenses, or whatever they’re called, can be bought and sold. So there you go: another sneaky way of taking something that we may have some connection to and some rights to, and just signing it away.
Prince: I think there’s actually something larger at foot here, too. And again, we made reference to it in so far as the land rights, right, but the fact that they just lay claim—like, a province and/or even the state just lays claim, and expropriates and steals the water, right? I mean, water and land go hand in hand.
Prince: And so, again, I don’t see it any different. I can’t see a court actually ruling against water rights. I mean, the province is an artificial construction. First Nations people were here first: their rights come prior to the provincial rights, and we know that there’s a hierarchical process. So I think they’re trying to extend the law to where it actually can’t be extended to. I actually foresee this going into the court system.
Simard: Mm-hm. Yeah.
Harp: Yeah. But, you know, it’s interesting too, right? Because First Nations people have—they don’t even have a shared responsibility for watershed management. And, you know, we talk a lot about reconciliation. I almost roll my eyes every time I hear it now, but I would think reconciliation, what it would look like in this area would be that all the people who are impacted when it comes to water, have a seat at the table. And that’s not even something that the province appears to be willing to entertain.
Now, the thing is, yes, even if everyone’s quite confident that the province would lose in court, it takes a long time, as you know, for something to make its way through the system. In the meantime, the default system is going to be imposed, as it were. And I want to get your reaction to another quote—again, from this senior bureaucrat—and a reminder that the way the system works is, it prioritizes water use based on seniority: that is, who’s held the license the longest for a given region. And when the bureaucrat is asked about this, he said issuing senior licenses to First Nations would have “implications for downstream users and other communities as well. Other Albertans, frankly.”
And I frankly find that interesting: that considerations of who’s upstream and who’s downstream seem to matter here. But it’s worth remembering that this is also the province that’s exploited the tar sands. And if we look at who’s downstream from that project’s massive footprint, it’s not Edmonton, it’s not Calgary—it’s roughly 25 Indigenous communities who, they say, have paid a horrible price. Colleen, am I alone in thinking there’s a potential double standard here?.
Simard: Oh, totally. You know, people use laws, and rule of law, and they use all these fancy terminologies to control the resources. They don’t really care about the people, they care about the resources. That’s what really matters.
Prince: Yeah, I definitely agree with Colleen. I think that if you were actually to assign a senior license to a First Nation, effectively what you’re doing is you’re putting them in the driver’s seat to allow, in times of water shortage, to pare out their water resources to whomever they would like to. And, obviously, they would most likely look to other First Nations prior to, possibly, non-Indigenous— I think that’s what they’re worried about. I’m not saying that that’s actually what would happen, but I think that’s their fear. And that’s one of the reasons why they would not assign First Nations a senior license.
Harp: Hm. It’s just interesting when the shoe’s on the other foot, when it’s non-Indigenous people who are downstream of something, then all of a sudden, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa: Hey, we better take everything into consideration.’ But the oil sands… not so much. And let me just ask though: as I say, it takes a long time for something to make its way through the courts, you have the status quo in the interim and, Conrad, the Globe article quotes an expert as saying the threat of junior licenses being cut off remains theoretical. How theoretical would you say it is?
Prince: Theoretical is all relative until you’re actually up against the fence. So, I mean, it’s not as if they can predict when these actually occur; I mean, droughts come up ever so often. And I think actually the way that we’re managing the environment, and we end up having global warming, there is no predictive measures for this. So it’s theoretical until tomorrow, when you’re actually in the first day of a drought. And you don’t really want to find yourself in that situation.
[Note: A Feb. 2019 article in the Globe reports a pair of bands had “reached agreements with Alberta to acquire reliable sources of safe drinking water, ending long-running disputes … avert[ing] a showdown between Alberta and the First Nations over water rights, and may offer a model for resolving similar disputes.”]
You’re listening to the Summer Edition of MEDIA INDIGENA, curated compilations of our Indigenous round table discussions dating back to Spring 2016. And while this summer series is partly an opportunity for us to enjoy the season with our loved ones, it’s also a chance to plan and expand our work going forward, work we simply could not do without the financial support of listeners like you. To see how you can help power this podcast, now and into the future, head over to mediaindigena.com and click the pink ‘Support Us’ button.
Returning to our look back at water, our last but by no means least excerpt serves as a reality check on one of the current Liberal government’s biggest election promises: a pledge to end all boil water advisories, or BWAs, within five years.
This round table took place in March 2017. It featured entrepreneur and commentator Robert Jago, along with lawyer and advocate Danika Billie Littlechild.
Harp: A recent CBC report has revealed that promised progress on alleviating boil water advisories is, so far, flowing in two directions.
On the one hand, the feds claim success in ending 18 advisories. On the other hand, twelve other cases have joined the list. So, by my math, that’s a net improvement of six. Remember: Trudeau promised to end all advisories by 2020. And so Googling that promise, I came across a quote of his at an October 2015 town hall organized by Vice magazine, where he noted 93 different communities under 133 different boil water advisories.
Now, according to the latest data available on canada.ca—which is a federal site—there were 96 long-term drinking water advisories in effect. And for reasons I’ll get into later, that actually understates the problem. (Spoiler alert: it omits at least a third of First Nations in Canada.)
Billie, let’s start with you. The inadequacies of First Nations water infrastructure are seemingly intractable. What is at the root of this specific issue?
Littlechild: Well, it’s a really complicated issue. And it’s also, at the same time, quite a simple one.
The fact is, when reserves were established across Canada, they ought to have been established appropriate sources of water for domestic and other use. And what has ended up happening through the course of the operation of Canadian law is, in fact, a concerted effort on the part of past Canadian federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to really push First Nations out of the management and decision-making process around how we use water within Canada for domestic use, for agricultural use, for industrial use, and also what we leave in the environment for Mother Earth.
What has happened, over the course of decades, is that we’ve seen the situation faced by First Nations—in a lack of access to clean drinking water, a lack of access to water for the purposes of any kind of development on reserve (which would include housing and what would be termed economic development), lack of access to water for purposes of agricultural use on reserve—all of these challenges, and just basic access, have been faced by First Nations since, really, the establishment of reserves.
So, for example, in the province in which I live, in Alberta, there are three treaty regions: Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8, which cover the entirety of the province, so of course we talk a lot about having a treaty right to water. And also the right to water also being sort of tied to other rights described within the context of treaty, and, as well, what would be termed Aboriginal rights in the context of the Canadian constitution. But only about a third of the Alberta First Nations population is served by a public water system. And so everybody else has private wells or cisterns with major issues of maintenance and monitoring when it comes to basic, domestic use of water.
And so, the impact of substandard wastewater systems on reserve is also of importance here because of the way that these reserves were established, the way houses have been built, the types of infrastructure that’s been put in place. Treated water is a service that can only be accessed by a fraction of the First Nations population in the province of Alberta. Even where treated water is available, they had a 2011 national assessment of First Nations water infrastructure (which sort of was a precursor to where we currently are in terms of the promises of the Trudeau government). That 2011 national assessment in fact had its own inadequacies in the way it was conducted, so fraught with its own obstacles and challenges, but it also found, in a very conservative assessment, significant numbers of water facilities that do exist on reserve, to be high to medium risk.
And so what’s really concerning about this, and why I raised that 2011 assessment, is because that assessment, combined with sort of the approach that’s been taken by Health Canada and by Indian and Northern Affairs (or what’s called Indigenous Affairs Canada now), is such that they have a very limited scope on how it is that they’re actually going to address this issue of boil water advisories in Canada. It’s sort of like fighting a small battle, and just basically saying we’re never going to win the war. Let’s just fight this small battle on the side and say that we won something.
To give you an example, we have one of our First Nations here in Maskwacis, which has a good water treatment facility, but it only links up to one hundred of the over 500, almost 600, homes on the reserve. And so, if there were to be a boil water advisory issued within this First Nation, it would be about the water treatment facility which is reaching 100 homes only, which is a small fraction of the folks who actually live on reserve. There are numerous examples of consistent BWAs being found in individual wells with individual homes on reserve, across the province. And those BWAs are not included in sort of this grandiose promise to end all the BWAs for First Nations in Canada, because obviously it’s less than a hundred.
The other thing that I want to say about this promise to end BWAs, is that even where there is a BWA that’s on the federal list to be addressed, some of them are not even serving Indigenous homes. They had a BWA that was issued for Samson Cree Nation—they actually had two on that list—one of them was like a hand pump that was located near a church that was basically under a boil water advisory, but nobody used that hand-pump’s well. That was just sort of off the road, next to a church that was attended, not just by Indigenous folks, but also by non-Indigenous folks from off reserve, and was not even really technically serving any homes. And so somehow that’s on the BWA list to be sort of ended. You know, that’s something that we’re supposed to be grateful for in the First Nations.
So, I think that is really, to me, one of the biggest challenges: to make sure that Canadians know, that we have to start demystifying these promises, and revealing, really, how limited the reach of the actual implementation of a promise like this is in Canada for First Nations.
Harp: Now Robert, you prefer to see these issues, or think it’s useful to look at these issues, through the lens of water security. What do you mean by that, and how do you think it helps give us a more useful perspective on the situation?
Jago: Well, like Danika was just saying, when we’re looking at the boil water advisories, we’re just fighting a very small battle in a larger war. And I think the larger war is probably the war about water security. Which, if we look at things like DAPL or Kinder Morgan, we’re looking at water in the sense—well, with DAPL, you’re looking at water in the sense of drinking water. For Kinder Morgan—for my First Nation, the Kwantlen—we’re thinking about access to marine resources.
Harp: I presume you mean habitat for fish and whatnot?
Jago: Yeah, exactly. So with water security, you’re looking at it from a bigger perspective; the boil water advisories are a very small part of the water problem on reserve. The study that Danika talks about, and subsequent studies produced by Environment Canada, while not perfect—or very, very far from it, and inadequate in many ways—show that only 57% of reserves have water security, which is to say that, of those reserves that they’ve studied (and again, not adequately,) only 50% of them have safe drinking water, water that won’t fail if there’s a flood, or won’t fail if there’s too much mud, or any kind of spill. The remaining 43% have unsafe drinking water. So, water systems where you could have a boil water advisory pop up really quickly.
So for those reserves where there is water insecurity, like Danika said, the federal government’s promise to tackle the boil water advisories is dealing with only a very small part of the problem. The larger problem is the safety of our water systems as a whole. So that’s why even though we’re fixing eighteen, 12 more popped up. And they’re going to continue to pop up unless you tackle the real problem, which is the poor system of water security on reserves. And that doesn’t just mean drinking water, but it’s also a problem of wastewater. When they looked at the wastewater system, only 48% were safe. That means a lot of them are unsafe and, again, are likely to fail and to pollute the drinking water, and to cause problems and to generate those boil water advisories.
Ultimately, I think what a lot of chiefs have identified as the main cause of those problems is that the federal government comes in, they create infrastructure, and then they walk away from it. They don’t fund it. They don’t ensure it’s staffed, they just walk away, and that causes these things to fail.
If you look at the CBC article that you talked about, where a boil water advisory was lifted, there was a little bit of celebration, but then there was also some concern because they now have this obligation. The reserve now has this obligation to staff this water treatment plant, which is very difficult. They said that, you know, when they put people in there, they stay a couple of months and they leave. They can’t keep people in these places in order to continue to run them.
Harp: Well, that’s the thing, right? I mean, like water itself, it’s not fixed in time and space. You’ve got to constantly maintain it and take care of it. It’s not a one-off thing that you can check off a list and say, you know, ‘promise fulfilled.’
And, once again, I want to bring up data collection. I’m not usually this much of a nerd, I promise, but I specifically want to get into how national water data is dis-aggregated. As I said, as of December 31, 2016, there were 96 long-term boil water advisories in effect, and 36 short-term, but that’s only based on 80 First Nations communities south of the 60th parallel. I say ‘only’ because that figure does not include the 198 First Nations communities in BC (which constitute about a third of all First Nations in Canada), nor does it include the seven members of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, whose member population adds up to about 11,000.
Now I could only find data for B.C. through the First Nations Health Authority, which as of January 31—a lot of numbers here folks, sorry to throw them at you—it recorded 17 boil water advisories, and four do-not-consume advisories, for a total of 21 drinking water advisories on 19 communities. So we have over a hundred in effect across the country, south of 60. Unfortunately, I could not find data on water quality north of 60, which is home to some 80 Indigenous communities, half First Nations, half Inuit.
What the heck is going on here? Why would you dis-aggregate these numbers? Why wouldn’t you, to create a full, complete picture of the state of water across Canada—is this just how they think, or is this an attempt to, as I say, obfuscate and maybe obscure?
Littlechild: I think it’s sort of a combination of things. I think this is a case where we’re like the inconvenient Indians again, right? Like, it would be extremely inconvenient for them to include us in the data sets because it would completely skew all their findings. Canada could no longer claim to be so high on the Human Development Index anymore if they actually included realistic datasets from Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Harp: Billie, you’ve talked about the jurisdictional complexities of this: you know, watersheds don’t respect borders, provincial borders, federal borders, any borders. Is that part of the problem? I imagine it is: to what extent?
Littlechild: I think the fact that water knows no borders is an exacerbating factor. And it’s also the fact that, you know, we have conflicting jurisdictions being asserted.
We have provinces that are saying, ‘Look, we own all the water, and if you as First Nations want to have access to water you will have to get on the ladder of getting a water license.’ So for example, in Alberta, we have a first-in-time, first-in-right licensing framework. And right now in Alberta, surface water is completely over-allocated, to the extent that we don’t even have adequate in-stream flow for species habitat and ecosystem integrity. And then also, we’re in a situation where First Nations are being told, ‘Well, you guys should just check your treaty rights at the door, because the only way that you’re getting access to treated water is if you become consumers like everybody else,’ in sort of a municipal style of provision of clean water.
And this also completely denigrates what many Indigenous peoples—in Alberta, at least—have called sort of the Indigenous value of water. So, valuing water beyond its utility for consumption or for use in an industry or agriculture, but also sort of the spiritual and sacred aspects of water, and the need for water as a being, as a spiritual entity, to be able to continue to exist and to function with appropriate protocols and appropriate contexts. And so, I think, you know, those overlapping jurisdictions have caused a lot of complexities.
And then we also have sort of really strange accountability frameworks that have been put in. So, for example, for many years, Health Canada has had a role in sort of being the body that issues boil water advisories. And certainly in reserves where the majority of the homes rely on groundwater—they are not relying on water that is going through a treatment facility—that Health Canada has an obligation to go around and routinely test those wells to see what the quality of the water is in those individual wells servicing individual homes. There have been times when Health Canada has not been able to get to individual homes on the regular, periodic basis that it prescribes for itself, which I think is annually or at least every two years.
And the other issue is that sometimes Health Canada doesn’t follow up a visit. So they may not follow up with the home to tell them, ‘Oh, you have a BWA on your individual well.’ Or, if they’ve told the homeowner, the home occupant, that there is a BWA, they may not come back and tell them that the BWA was lifted. And so the home occupant may be sitting there thinking that they are still on a boil water advisory and not able to utilize their water to the fullest extent that they might be able to otherwise. And so, it’s really about Health Canada not actually completely fulfilling its tasks as well.
The other challenge too, is that we actually are facing a huge obstacle when it comes to just having basic data. So this is scientific data, hydrogeological data, to focus on immediate issues. Things like health-related issues of domestic wells and municipal type infrastructure, being sort of the water treatment facilities and wastewater facilities. Trying to have an understanding of the hydrogeological characterization of the aquifers that are beneath the reserves themselves. So, for example, in Maskwacis, we’ve had decades of oil and gas development, where there was what’s called directional drilling done, and there’s old oil and gas pipeline that’s still there, hasn’t been remediated. And so those things do have an impact on aquifers.
We also have a challenge in just community engagement and education, to think about things like water, conservation and protection. We have a lack of adequate upkeep of homes. So say there’s a leak in a home that is just never dealt with, and that can result in huge water losses over years. And part of the challenge is that we’ve got all these conflicting jurisdictions and everybody wants the water, but nobody wants to have any accountabilities for the people who are unable to access water, which is First Nations themselves. There’s huge challenges in water security, in the water security framework, where it’s privileging corporate interests completely over basic human rights, and over the rights of Indigenous peoples, which is something a bit distinct from the basic human right to water.
Harp: So… solutions: what’s the way forward here? Robert, what comes to your mind as a way to get us out of this hole?
Jago: I couldn’t even begin to tackle that; I think Danika could. But what I would say is, one thing is to get people to actually care about it again.
‘Cause I don’t think Canadians really care. And that’s the problem with us in this. I mean, we are in a colonial situation with regards to water, in that if we want something solved, we have to convince another people to convince their politicians to do something for us. And Canadians don’t care about us. And Canadians don’t care about this.
They think of us the way that everybody thinks of Israel and Palestine, that it’s too big and it’s never going to be solved. But I mean, Canadians do care about water in other places. Now you said that water knows no border. Well, I mean, concern for water knows no border. If you remember back when there was the start of the problem in Flint, Michigan. People in Windsor got together, raised money and queued up to donate bottles of water. They donated 66,000 bottles of water to Flint.
There was another case in Detroit where the city was going to cut people off of their water, and Canadians and people around the world got together and donated money, did Kickstarters, to help fund the water bills of the citizens of Detroit. Meanwhile, within 200 kilometres of Windsor, there were boil water advisories on reserves. But I mean, they don’t care about it.
Instead of stories about how bad the water situation is, it seems like it’s something that the media doesn’t care about reporting anymore. Not too much, anyway. There were stories at that time in the Canadian press about how the boil water advisories in Flint could happen in Canada. They were talking about it as if was something that was impossible, that regular Canadians couldn’t even imagine happening in Canada—in a country where there are 300 reserves with water insecurity.
So I think a big part of solving it is to get people to care about it again, to get our colonial masters’ subjects, to care about it again. I mean, it doesn’t matter if we care about it. It doesn’t matter if we want to get it solved, we need to convince them.
Harp: Well, it’s funny, right? I mean, you don’t have to have a PhD in Canadian history to get the sense that Canada did not originally mean for reserves to be great places to live for Indian people. It is disquieting to think—you know, how possible is it to redeem places that were never intended to be truly livable? I dunno. I don’t have a question to formulate out of there other than to say, can you please help me get out of this dark place in my mind, Billie or Robert?
Jago: I don’t think it’s necessarily a cynical or incorrect dark place either. Because we’re talking about the reserve system, which was set up a century ago. But if you look even today, if you look this year, last year, you could see that with other Indigenous communities in Western Australia, or in the Negev region of Israel, the first thing that the colonial authorities do, and are doing now, is cut off the water. And that’s the first step in clearing those places of the natives, which is something that they are trying to do now.
Harp: So they weaponize water.
Jago: Exactly. So it, as is happening now, we could see it happening now to them in real time, while we’re living with the effects a hundred years on. If we look at first causes, I think you’re right, that this is intended. They want it to be this way.
Harp: But that’s cold comfort, of course, for the people who are living there now trying to make the best of it. So, Billie, you’ve talked a lot about people, the barriers they face, the obstacles they face. I mean, are there cases where people are making a dent in this situation, either through some sort of innovative practice or sheer force of will? I mean, what are the notes of hope that we can strike here, while at the same time having sort of a steely-eyed realism about it?
Littlechild: Yeah, it’s a tough question, but, you know, surprisingly, I think the answer, the answers—‘cause there’s going to be plural answers—will be found simply by Indigenous people sort of being firmly within their own identities. Being and living within the fulsomeness of our own languages, of our own legal systems, of our own knowledge systems, is ultimately the strongest position that we can take.
You know, I really am not that interested in being one of the multitudes banging my head against a brick wall that has a lot of dents from the heads of my ancestors, trying to make a difference with a system that ultimately does not have any vested interest in fully recognizing us in the fulsomeness of our Indigenous identities, as well as on a real nation-to-nation basis. I think, you know, you can say nation-to-nation, but what that’s really emerging as, is Indian Act governments versus true Indigenous nationhood, based fully within our own systems of being. And so that’s a really important distinction, and I really feel that the ultimate best results will come when we move forward within our own identities, and without feeling that we have to reference other knowledge systems to have authenticity or legitimacy in doing so.
You know, the work that I choose to do around water is with my own peoples, within our own language, within Cree. We actually have, for example, established a nipiy committee, nipiy is water in Cree. And if you break that down into the two elements of where that word comes from, it’s niya pimatisiwin, which means ‘I am life.’ You know, we really take such a much more holistic approach within working on the issues of water that we face. We have not just, sort of, water operators and band council members and band administration folks: we also have knowledge keepers, water ceremonialists, women, youth, elders, the folks who actually have extensive knowledge on our traditional methodologies around water management. And how to work with the natural environment and with animals to make sure that water is managed appropriately. For example, like, even a lot of people don’t really think about the role that animals play, like beavers. Beavers are one of the best water managers in our world and their existence is threatened because of the laws around trapping, and the use of recreational vehicles in Alberta, which have harmed or obliterated the natural habitat and activities of the beaver.
And so, it’s really important to know that our knowledge systems are not just about—they should not be reduced to something that is, you know, pejorative or simply anecdotal. Our knowledge systems actually have immense value because they are based in the lands and territories which we have lived in since time immemorial. And our law is coming from that land, those waters, those animals, those plants—what we have been gifted with from the Creator in terms of our own laws and what is encapsulated within our languages and our knowledge, is actually integral to facing the challenges of water scarcity, to facing the challenges of climate change.
We really need to re-examine whether or not we can collectively force—of course we can, if we decide—collectively force a systems change, which I think is really what’s necessary at the bottom of it. And Indigenous peoples, I think, are amongst the beacons to lead us into a wonderful new era.
So: where do things stand as of this recording, made in June 2018? Well, remember: the numbers cited at that October 2015 town hall were 133 BWAs, associated with 93 communities. And if you visit Health Canada’s website, you’ll see it lists 75 long-term drinking water advisories, as well as 37 short-term advisories. Do the math, that’s 112. So, clearly, some progress has been made.
[Note: For more recent numbers, consult Indigenous Services Canada’s webpage.]
But, again, as we noted earlier, these numbers do not cover every First Nation in the country. It excludes all of British Columbia, for example. In any case, if you hold the Liberals to the letter of their promise—an end to all boil water advisories within five years of their election—they have until exactly October 19th, 2020 to make good on their word. They now say they’re on track to do it by March 2021. But of course, all of this assumes they get re-elected in 2019.
Now as usual, we’re skeptical, but we’re more than ready to eat that skepticism—washed down with clean, safe drinking water from any of those First Nations forced to do without it for so long in what is supposedly a developed country.
That’s it for MEDIA INDIGENA, episode 121, the first of nine special summer shows. Next week, we bring you a compendium of conversations we have had about education. Thanks again to everyone who appeared on this week’s show. This podcast was edited and produced by Stephanie Wood and me, Rick Harp. Take care, everyone. Ekosi.
Transcription provided courtesy of Elena Ortiz, Kenyon Smutherman, and Will Pramono.