One out of every six First Nations people living on reserves can’t drink the tap water.
It is too polluted, according to the author of a new book about indigenous people’s water rights in Canada.
If one out of every six Canadians in our cities and towns had to buy bottled water because the tap water was brown and stunk, there would be outrage. However, as of June, the Canadian government reported 110 First Nations communities in Canada are under a “drinking water advisory” and many have been for years.
In Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights, author Merrell-Ann S. Phare explores the problems First Nations face with contaminated drinking water, and the web of reasons why change isn’t happening.
Phare lays out the complex problems in an invitingly small book. Denying the Source is only the size of a daytimer, so wading into the issue isn’t too intimidating. She explains, in simple terms, that a big part of the reason that some First Nations communities have had to buy bottled water for 10 years is that there is no clear jurisdiction over the water.
Provinces govern water allocation off reserves and have no jurisdiction on reserves, she explains. Treaties don’t specifically include water rights, but they also don’t specifically exclude them either.
As well, First Nations can’t look to the federal government for clarity. First, Ottawa does not govern water-use rights. Second, the Canadian government is not an advocate of water being a basic human right. In 2008, Canada successfully argued against the United Nations Human Rights Council’s attempt to declare it as such.
Phare points to the Supreme Court of Canada as a source of hope, however. The court has a track record of making decisions in support of First Nations access to potable water as well as access to water for agricultural and industrial needs.
At the heart of the issue is the question of First Nations’ right to water; what legal grounds to use as leverage, balancing limited water with the rest of Canada’s needs, and the importance of maintaining enough water in rivers and lakes to support ecosystems.
Phare points out that the Canadian approach to water as a commodity adds to the problems. First Nations fundamental law is stewardship for the Earth and water, so Canadian laws and First Nations laws are at odds. It will take effort on both sides to come to an agreement, but it can be done, according to Phare.
Both government agencies and First Nations agencies recognize there is a need to change the current system.
Two years ago the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chose six reserves in unique geographical situations and sampled the water. The AFN found that the water in every one of those reserves was either tainted with uranium, had unacceptable levels of disease-causing bacteria or came out of the tap brown and stinking. In addition, all six reserves showed “disturbingly high rates of cancer and evidence of fish deformities.”
Phare’s book also includes examples of court decisions awarding First Nations access to ample clean water. So instead of seeing the issue as a quagmire without hope, Phare views it as a problem that can be solved, but one that requires empathy from fellow Canadians.
Published in Fast Forward Weekly on February 25, 2010