Cut Off

Canada's Indigenous communities face a clean drinking water crisis

These People Haven’t Had Clean Water to Drink for 20 Years in Canada

Reporters fired questions at Canada’s minister for natural resources, but as he walked across the iceless hockey arena, Greg Rickford ignored them.

Instead he strode to his wife and kids and picked up one of his young children, who let out a wail in front of the cameras.

“You’re scaring my children, if you don’t mind,” Rickford scolded the media.

In June, about 70 residents young and old gathered in the arena in Shoal Lake 40, a First Nation that sits on an island on the Ontario-Manitoba border, to hear a highly anticipated announcement from three levels of government. They hoped Rickford would announce funding for an access road to the mainland, called Freedom Road, which would make it cheaper and easier for the community to build a desperately-needed water treatment plant.

Shoal Lake 40, a community of about 250 people, relies on bottled water deliveries. For the last 17 years, they have been under a boil water advisory.

Another Ontario First Nation, Neskantaga, has a water treatment plant, but it stopped working in 1995, two years after it was built. The community has been on a boil water advisory for 20 years.

Canada has 7 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water, yet many First Nations live as second-class citizens with no access to clean tap water. As of July 2015, 93 First Nations across Canada had a total of 133 drinking water advisories, some of them for two decades. That number doesn’t include the 25 other First Nations in British Columbia who are also under boil water advisories. In Shoal Lake 40, there’s a dark irony to the crisis: They are surrounded by fresh water they can’t drink.

Ahead of the Canadian election on Oct. 19, First Nations have become increasingly vocal about the issue, holding ‘water walks’ that raise awareness of the plight, hosting fundraising campaigns, and leveraging natural resources in the fight for clean water.

Shoal Lake 40’s water problem began more than 100 years ago. In 1914, the City of Winnipeg dug a canal and built an intake pipe to redirect the water from Shoal Lake 40 to the city. The water destined for Winnipeg is treated and cleaned for city residents, but the water for Shoal Lake 40 residents is not.

Last spring the situation became more desperate. Chief Erwin Redskydeclared a state of emergency when the island reserve’s only lifeline to the mainland, a beaten-up barge, broke down, and bottled water deliveries stopped.

Chief Redsky has focused the community’s efforts on building Freedom Road, which would cost $30 million — a price-tag Shoal Lake 40 has asked three levels of government to split evenly.

In the Shoal Lake 40 arena in June, Winnipeg’s deputy mayor Mike Pagtakhan and Manitoba’s Municipal Government Minister Drew Caldwell each promised $1 million toward the road design, and committed in principle to fund its construction. But Rickford’s announcement wasn’t what the community had hoped.

“The Government of Canada will invest $1 million dollars in support of the design — not the study, not the proposal, but the technical design of the Freedom Road,” he told them.

“This is the basis for establishing the cost associated with the construction of the project, and once those costs are determined the discussion regarding the funding of that road can take place,” he added.

After his announcement, a construction worker who took a break from building Freedom Road to hear the announcement told VICE News that Rickford’s words were “a slap in the face.”

It was a re-announcement of a previous commitment, with no promise in principle to fund the road, Chief Redsky said.

“Our people need an answer today,” resident Stewart Redsky sobbed over the loudspeaker as children stood behind him holding neon signs with the words Freedom Road. “Our people deserve an answer today.”

Reporters questioned Rickford following his announcement, but he would not commit to funding the road.

Unlike Shoal Lake 40, Neskantaga, an isolated fly-in reserve surrounded by lakes in Northern Ontario, has a water treatment plant. Built in 1993, it stopped working two years after it was built.

Residents rely on bottled water flown in by supply plane and delivered by truck. Three years ago, the federal government also supplied them with a reverse osmosis filtration system that requires them to travel by foot or vehicle to fill jugs and buckets with water for their homes.

If residents run out of water, they drink the tap water, despite the water advisories.

If Neskantaga teenager Charla Moonias washes her hands or showers too often, her skin reacts badly and little bumps appear. Her skin cleared up when she moved away three years ago.

“I ran out of water last week and I had friends over, and it’s like, ‘I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty,'” Charla Moonias said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any water,” she told them, so they drank the tap water.

Photo of sores that residents of Neskantaga believe are caused by bathing in untreated water.

Residents of Shoal Lake 40 also have rough, bumpy skin and sores they say are caused by the untreated water. And drinking the tap water makes them sick. Some residents move away from the reserve after giving birth to avoid raising their children under such harsh conditions.

In Canada, infrastructure and health conditions on reserves are administered by Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs. Aboriginal Affairs has underspent by $1 billion on social services over the last five years, although this is not the same funding source for infrastructure.

VICE News requested interviews with the ministers in charge of both agencies, but they declined.

In a statement, Aboriginal Affairs said: “Since 2006, our government has invested approximately $3 billion to complete more than 220 major projects and funded maintenance of over 1,200 water and wastewater treatment projects.

“We also brought into force the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which aims to provide First Nations communities with drinking water and wastewater standards that are comparable to provincial or territorial standards off reserve,” the agency said.

"Our people need an answer today," Shoal Lake 40 resident Stewart Redsky sobbed earlier this year.
"Our people need an answer today," Shoal Lake 40 resident Stewart Redsky sobbed earlier this year.Photo by VICE Canada

Aboriginal Affairs also told VICE News they offered Shoal Lake 40 a water treatment plant they could share with neighboring reserve Shoal Lake 39.

But Chief Redsky said, “For us, we’re an independent community, and I think we deserve our own road access, our own water treatment plants, our own schools. We want our own infrastructure, not to depend on anybody else.”

Aboriginal Affairs said they provide $225,000 annually that goes toward water treatment facilities in Neskantaga. When asked specifically where that money goes, Chief Moonias deflected the blame back onto the agency:

“Yes, they provide that money to us, but it’s money that’s provided to our community to run a water treatment plant that’s not producing the water that it requires for our people, and that’s the question that the department should be answering: why have they not produced the funding that’s necessary in order for the people of Neskantaga to be able to drink from their own taps?”

The Chief has since asked the federal government for $8 million to build a new water treatment plant.

Neskantaga has one potential long-term solution in their fight for better water infrastructure: they and eight other First Nations sit on top of what could be the largest chromite reserve in North America — possibly even in the world — worth billions of dollars.

Chief Moonias has decided the way forward is to leverage government and industry interest in the region’s mineral resources — known as The Ring of Fire — into better infrastructure and a new water treatment plant for the community.

“Our people need an answer today,” Shoal Lake 40 resident Stewart Redsky sobbed earlier this year. Image via VICE Canada

Shoal Lake 40 has also taken a creative approach to their water access issue.

A Winnipeg man started a fundraiser to cover the cost of the road that, although ultimatelyfell $9.9 million short of its $10 million goal, helped generate media coverage. Eventually, the politicians took notice.

Photo of sores that residents of Neskantaga believe are caused by bathing in untreated water.
Photo of sores that residents of Neskantaga believe are caused by bathing in untreated water.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said, “Around Shoal Lake, simple answer: yes. A Liberal Party will step up and do its share.” Kenora Liberal contender Bob Nault echoed him, “Our commitment today is clear: a Liberal government would build Freedom Road.”

NDP leader Tom Mulcair followed the Liberal promise by saying, “We will not turn our backs on the people of Shoal Lake. An NDP government will commit to paying the Government of Canada’s share for the Shoal Lake Freedom Road.”

In August, a Conservative MP who is retiring this election, Joy Smith, confused her party’s own spin with a commitment to fund Freedom Road, but Rickford quickly corrected her, saying the Conservatives support the road’s construction in principle but have not committed funding.

And while both Trudeau and Mulcair have made more expansive promises on how they would address the clean water crisis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to defend his government’s actions.

“Look, on issue after issue, whether it’s housing or education or water, this government has made record investments in First Nations reserves to improve outcomes including in those areas, also including by the way, fundamental reforms to make sure First Nations people have rights on reserve, have transparency in their government,” Harper said. “And we will continue to make those investments going forward, and I would compare any day the record of this government to the previous Liberal government on that and other issues.”

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