Tiny town in Labrador looks to the federal government to solve its water crisis
Every day, 63-year-old Joe Keefe spends an hour and a half hauling water to his house so he can cook, clean and bathe.
In his tiny town of Black Tickle, an Inuit-Metis community of only 138 people that sits on an island off the coast of Labrador, there are no pipes connecting the water supply to homes, and the community’s only source of water is a water filtration machine a three-kilometre round trip from Keefe’s home.
Men, who are responsible for water collection, make the journey on snowmobiles in the winter and ATVs in the summer. Sometimes they encounter polar bears along the way.
“Every drop of water, we go there and get it,” Keefe, chair of the local service district, tells VICE News.
Every three gallons of drinking water costs residents $2.
Black Tickle’s residents are doing their best to find solutions to the problem — including starting a rainwater collection program, and appealing to both the provincial and federal governments for help — but the situation remains dire.
Now Keefe and others in the town are hoping a legal claim asserting Aboriginal ownership over an area of land, bolstered by a Supreme Court decision last April, could change everything. If the Inuit government representing Black Tickle and the federal government come to an agreement, the land claim could bring basic services to the tiny community, and maybe even clean tap water.
The town is emblematic of a water crisis that has plagued rural Newfoundland and Labrador for decades. Across the province, there were 211 active boil water advisories affecting 160 communities, as of late January. More than 50 of those advisories have been in place since 2000. Some are for Indigenous communities, although it is not clear exactly how many. Black Tickle is not on the list because it has clean water — even if cost and distance are barriers to access.
Eddie Joyce, who serves a dual role as Newfoundland’s minister for municipal affairs and the environment, is tasked with developing an action plan for the province’s water crisis. But Newfoundland has seen its debt rise to a record $12.7 billion last year, due in part to the worldwide downturn in oil, and now the province has slashed spending, cutting 287 government jobs in February, and delaying answers to our questions about the crisis.
Although the provincial coffers are bare, this month Joyce announced a three-year $100 million investment in infrastructure, including money for water and wastewater infrastructure. It’s unclear if that will even make a dent in the problem. The federal government has earmarked $1.8-billion to address 127 advisories in 80 communities across the country, but Newfoundland has a much bigger number to tackle. Joyce declined an interview with VICE News and the department refused to say how long it would be before the water action plan is finished.
In a statement to VICE News, the minister’s office said it has programs to “protect, enhance, conserve, develop, control and effectively utilize the water resources of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
“Work is underway” on an action plan to reduce the number of long-term water advisories “to the greatest extent possible,” the minister’s office said.
A 2002 government report, the oldest publicly available on the issue, shows the province had 302 water advisories affecting 193 communities that year, meaning the number has decreased in the last 15 years. But the problem remains staggering, and a 2015 government report found the needle had barely moved over the last five years. Armed with the highest court’s decision, some frustrated communities are looking more intently at the federal government now and the role they think it should play.
For the past two years, VICE News has covered the water crisis on First Nations in southern Canada, where some reserves haven’t had clean tap water to drink for 20 years.
At a VICE-hosted election town hall in October 2015, Justin Trudeau committed to solving the 133 water advisories on 93 First Nations, including British Columbia, within five years. But in Newfoundland, where chronic, long term water advisories are a fact of life for most small, remote towns, ensuring water access for all communities is a provincial responsibility.
Some of Newfoundland’s water advisories have been in place since before 28-year-old Sarah Minnes was born.
“A lot of it is due to chlorine issues,” said Minnes, who studied the province’s chronic advisories for a project called Rural Resistance at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “We found that some communities just don’t like chlorination and are turning off their chlorine due to taste. That’s an issue, and there definitely needs to be a lot more education about the need for chlorination.”
But other communities simply don’t have adequate water infrastructure, she explained.
“There definitely needs to be a lot more education about the need for chlorination.”
“We have crumbling infrastructure, and in Newfoundland and Labrador the current fiscal climate is not good, and finding that money to replace, even maintain infrastructure is hard, especially in smaller communities.”
Her research also found that some Newfoundlanders drink from untreated roadside springs, risking illness from parasites or E. coli bacteria.
As of March 31, 2016, the most common reason for a water advisory in Newfoundland was “chlorine residual issues” — either the community had run out of chlorine, or they had stopped chlorinating their water because they didn’t like the taste. The second most common reason was the disinfection system was broken, followed by “operational issues.”
When Newfoundland joined the rest of Canada in 1949, the Terms of Union between the province and Canada did not include Newfoundland’s Indigenous people, which means they do not fall under the Indian Act. Therefore, health, education and drinking water fell to the province.
Although Newfoundland provides 90 percent of funding to municipalities for new water projects, an expert VICE News spoke to said the province often downloads the responsibility for infrastructure maintenance and water delivery to the communities themselves — even when they lack the resources to maintain water facilities or deliver water.
For Black Tickle, a new Supreme Court of Canada ruling could change that.
Last April, after a 17-year legal battle, the country’s highest court recognized for the first time that the federal government has constitutional jurisdiction for all Indigenous people in Canada — including Inuit Metis communities like Black Tickle. Known as the Daniels decision, the court found that Metis and non-status Indians had been left in a “jurisdictional wasteland with significant and obvious disadvantaging consequences.”
A lower court judge found they had been treated like a “political football.”
“With federal and provincial governments refusing to acknowledge jurisdiction over them, Metis and non-status Indians have no one to hold accountable for an inadequate status quo,” the decision reads.
“There’s no water, there’s no sewer, there’s no garbage collection, right now there’s no gas and fuel.”
The Nunatukavut Community Council, which is the government for 6,000 Inuit of south and central Labrador including Black Tickle, celebrated.
“The highest court in the land was unequivocal in its decision that the federal government has a responsibility to treat all Indigenous peoples equally,” the council said in a statement. “This is a huge victory for the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut. Building upon the commitment from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the path to a NunatuKavut land claim acceptance is clearer and more assured than it has ever been.”
“This historic win ensures that we must have equitable access to programs and services like Non-Insured Health Benefits, housing and education, which have long been denied our people,” the statement continued. “This will have a tremendous impact on our overall well-being. From this moment forward, we shall never be excluded or forgotten again.”
It was huge news for the residents of Black Tickle, who for years have been fighting pressure to relocate.
“There’s hardly any services here, m’dear,” Keefe says. “There’s no water, there’s no sewer, there’s no garbage collection, right now there’s no gas and fuel. Every day there’s something being added to the problems.”
In June 2016, Keefe wrote a letter to Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett on behalf of Black Tickle alerting her to the alarming state of affairs: The community was about to lose its only medical service, with the local health authority eliminating the sole nurse practitioner position in town, and its only fuel provider was shutting down.
“We are in crisis, experiencing a lot of pain and fear, and we appeal to you for help.”
“We are in crisis, experiencing a lot of pain and fear, and we appeal to you for help,” he wrote.
“We have a lot of sickness because we do not have running water in our homes and we have limited access to a potable water dispensing unit that is not consistently funded.”
Keefe told the minister: “We want our Aboriginal rights respected, as the Canadian Constitution promises us. We want access to health services, as the Canada Health Act guarantees us. We feel that the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is being dishonoured. And we are the ones who have to suffer for it.”
The letter sparked a meeting, months later, attended by Labrador MP Yvonne Jones in Black Tickle to discuss issues including fuel. “These discussions are ongoing between the province and the community,” the Indigenous affairs minister’s office told VICE News. The federal government is not ponying up any support because the community is under provincial jurisdiction, the minister’s office said. Keefe said the town did manage to keep its nurse.
The Nunatukavut Community Council and Keefe are hoping the Daniels decision changes the situation on the ground. The NCC has submitted a land claim to the federal government, and discussions are ongoing.
The federal government tells VICE News that under the Indian Act it only has responsibility for public water systems on reserve, and although Black Tickle is an Indigenous community, it is not a reserve. The Daniels decision does not amend the Indian Act and does not create new reserve lands, although it does bolster the position of recognized communities in negotiating new agreements.
Indigenous Affairs said it is currently working to resolve the only long term drinking water advisory on a reserve that falls under the Indian Act in Newfoundland — in the Mi’kmaq community of Miawpukek.
However, in Newfoundland, Indigenous Affairs also works with self-governing groups on a nation-to-nation basis to provide money for infrastructure, including water. One of those groups is Nunatsiavut, an Inuit government that settled its land claim agreement in 2003 after a 26-year battle. Under the terms of the agreement, the Canadian government provides money for infrastructure, including for housing, and when needed, water. That money is then administered locally, by Nunatsiavut community governments. “As Nunatsiavut is self-governing, drinking water quality and infrastructure rests within the purview of Nunatsiavut,” Indigenous Affairs told VICE News.
The Nunatukavut Community Council, which includes Black Tickle, is trying to negotiate a similar agreement. But for now, it is still up to the province to provide them with clean drinking water, Indigenous Affairs said.
“Negotiations are in a preliminary stage, so there’s nothing there yet, even though we’ve been guaranteed by the Supreme Court of Canada that we have rights,” Keefe says.
“We are supposed to be, in the long run, treated the same as [Nunatsiavut], because we are the same as them, except that we are in a different part of Labrador, that’s all,” Keefe explains.
“It’s a beautiful idea, if we can get there,” he said of the federal government providing money for water infrastructure and other basic services.
“But when are we going to get there? I don’t know.”
Maura Hanrahan, an academic and researcher, lived in Black Tickle in 2005 and worked with the community to find long term solutions to water insecurity. She says land claims enhance recognition and provide funding for research. “It opens doors so they could use it to leverage funding,” she said.
“If you can’t turn on a tap, water becomes the dominant worry in your life because you need water for absolutely everything.”
In theory, if their land claim is accepted, negotiated and settled, they could have more jurisdiction over things like water, and more money to put toward solving the problem, she explains.
“But it depends on the [land claim] negotiations,” she continues. “And, of course, such negotiations take a long time but the problem needs to be solved soon.”
In the meantime, Hanrahan says people in Black Tickle are dehydrated, struggle with bone and muscle issues associated with fetching water, their traditional relationship to the land is interrupted, and water insecurity is contributing to mental health issues.
“People have to worry constantly about access to safe water. They have to plan for it constantly, and what’s really touched me the most is the effect on people’s mental health, because most of us can turn on a tap. If you can’t turn on a tap, water becomes the dominant worry in your life because you need water for absolutely everything.”
Both Hanrahan and Minnes believe the federal government should step up to solve water insecurity in Black Tickle and other communities.
“I think there’s definitely a role for the federal government here,” said Minnes.
Hanrahan pointed to a 2010 UN declaration that recognized water as a human right, and challenged the prime minister to go a day without turning on a tap.
“Go through that exercise and it transforms your relationship to water,” she says. “We’ve been directed by the United Nations to see water as a human rights issue, so why can’t we do that? Why in Canada can we not provide all of our citizens with access to water? How basic is that?”
Cover: Peter Power/The Globe and Mail