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Attawapiskat member files UN human rights complaint over decades-long struggle for clean drinking water

January 25, 2024

Charles Hookimaw’s submission to the international organization aims to hold ‘Canada’ accountable: ‘It’s been dragging on too long’

Charles Hookimaw is an Attawapiskat First Nation member who has filed a complaint to the UN over his community’s lack of access to clean drinking water. Submitted photo

First Peoples Law Report: IndigNews – An Attawapiskat member has submitted a 500-page human rights complaint to the United Nations over his First Nation’s lack of access to clean drinking water.

For months, Charles Hookimaw has been working with lawyers to draft a document and recently mailed it to Geneva, where it is set to be considered by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council (UNHRC). 

In the complaint, he details his community’s decades-long struggle with tainted water — and he’s hoping to speak on the matter before their permanent forum on Indigenous People.

As “Canada” vies for a spot on the UNHRC, experts say the complaint could be a small step towards more equitable access to drinking water.  “If nobody says anything, nothing’s gonna happen, if we just continue to ignore and turn a blind eye,” Hookimaw said in an interview.  “Our needs are barely being met, and they have to be addressed with a good solution and a long-term solution.”

‘This is not right. This is not fair’

Earlier in January, a carpet of snow blanketed Attawapiskat as Hookimaw lugged a sled laden with three large jugs to the water treatment plant at the centre of his reservation.  In Hookimaw’s First Nation in northern “Ontario,” he said, tap water hasn’t been safe to drink since the 1980s. 

For decades, collecting clean water from one of the First Nation’s two reverse osmosis water treatment plants has become a weekly — and even daily — habit. The community’s main reserve is approximately 236 hectares in size.

Five years after the nation declared a drinking water crisis, Hookimaw said it’s unclear if conditions have improved. 

While Attawapiskat First Nation is not under a long-term drinking water advisory,  Hookimaw said  the running water in its homes is still not safe to drink.  It’s been an issue for as long as he can remember — as a child, he remembers leaving home to collect clean water from the plants. 

“For me at the time, I thought it was just part of normal life,” he said. But when he moved to “New York City,” his home had drinking water running straight into his sink.  When he returned to Attawapiskat as an adult and once again had to haul water, he recalled thinking: “this is not right. This is not fair.”

The trek to access clean water is particularly challenging for some community members. There are Elders who aren’t physically able to carry large quantities of water back to their homes, Hookimaw said. 

Hookimaw himself brings water home for his uncle, who is unable to make the trip. One of his cousins also relies on others to bring her water — which means she can’t always access it when she needs it. 

In an email to IndigiNews, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said repairs and upgrades to the nation’s treatment plants would be finished by 2024. The federal department spokesperson added ISC has invested in a community-led study on how to improve the nation’s water.

“ISC officials have been working with the community to develop medium- and long-term action plans to improve access to safe water in the community,” the spokesperson wrote. “ISC officials remain actively engaged with community leadership and are meeting on a regular basis.”

The nation declared a drinking water crisis in 2019 when it found harmful levels of chemicals used to treat water in its water system. Since then, Hookimaw said many in his nation are unclear on whether they will see a long-term solution to improve water quality.

“[The water treatment plants] are not a long term solution,” Hookimaw said. “But I don’t see any end to this.” 

To bring clean water home, Hookimaw must transport jugs from the water treatment plant at the centre of the reserve. Submitted photo
Feds will ‘have no place to hide’ if they join UN council: expert

In Attawapiskat First Nation, water flows north and east along the Attawapiskat River into “Hudson Bay.” Hookimaw said he’s also worried about how mining projects upstream — like development of the Ring of Fire mining region, about 250 kilometres west — might affect his nation’s source water. 

“They want to push for critical minerals in our backyard, yet they can’t even address the water issues that we have,” Hookimaw said. “It’s been dragging on too long.”

Hookimaw’s complaint asks the UN to recognize “Canada’s” inability to provide his nation’s clean water challenges as a human rights violation and ensure Attawapiskat First Nation has a long-term solution to access sufficient amounts of clean drinking water.

He filed his complaint in December, and now two committees must review the complaint before it goes to the human rights council. A spokesperson for the UNHRC said in an email to IndigiNews that the complaints process is confidential. 

Last May, “Canada” announced it was a candidate to join the UNHRC. In 2010, the United Nations declared access to clean drinking water an indispensable human right.  On Wednesday, Hookimaw said, he also met with human rights group Amnesty International to discuss how to increase pressure on the council and “Canada” to address the issue. 

Gabriel Maracle, an Indigenous peoples governance professor at Carleton University, said he would be surprised if the complaint resulted in an immediate federal policy change. 

“You have to think about these things in terms of inches as opposed to yards, or centimetres as opposed to metres,” Maracle said. “But it is important that Indigenous peoples are able to go to these international bodies to talk about the issues that are impacting their day to day lives.”

Still, Maracle said the complaint could shape how “Canada” implements the UN’s international laws on the rights of Indigenous People. Maracle said Hookimaw’s actions could hold the federal government accountable as they seek to join the UNHRC.

“Canada’s bid to join the council means that it is willing to make itself adhere to a higher standard of what it means to uphold human rights,” Maracle said.  “I would hope that if they do join, more complaints are put forward by First Nations Peoples, because then Canada has no place to hide if they join this governing body.”

‘Smoke and mirrors’ around federal drinking water advisories

Many Indigenous communities across the country still don’t have access to clean drinking water. Throughout “Canada,” 28 long-term drinking water advisories are in effect at the time of publication. 

A bill to legislate protection of drinking water for First Nations was introduced into the House of Commons, the first step in becoming a law. At the time of publication, that bill has yet to reach a second hearing, the next step. 

While “Canada” has lifted 143 long-term drinking water advisories since 2015, at least three communities have faced new drinking water advisories each year since. In an email to IndigiNews, a spokesperson for ISC said it has action plans in 26 communities to resolve the remaining active long-term drinking water advisories.

“We know there is more to do, and we will continue working with Indigenous leadership and communities to implement community-led solutions,” the spokesperson said.

But drinking water advisories only reflect part of the issue, according to Dawn Martin-Hill. Martin-Hill is an anthropologist and Indigenous clean water researcher at McMaster University and a Mohawk resident of the Six Nations of the Grand River. 

She said many communities like Attawapiskat without drinking water advisories also face challenges accessing clean water — including her own.

“If you don’t have a boil water advisory, but your water still is not the best, it will meet [the federal government’s] metrics,” Martin-Hill said, “So there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors with the boil water advisories.”

According to Martin Hill, more than 80 per cent of households in Six Nations of the Grand River don’t have clean drinking water from their taps — despite her own home being a five-minute walk away from the water systems of the nearby town of “Caledonia.” 

When communities or nations face challenges reaching clean water, but aren’t under a boil-water advisory, they have less access to federal clean water funding to build new treatment plants or improve water infrastructure. 

Martin-Hill said many communities also don’t have the proper sensors to monitor water quality. She said to improve or protect a region’s water quality, Indigenous peoples and the Crown can ensure that its water sources aren’t contaminated in the first place. 

“We need to do more to protect the source water and the groundwater,” Martin-Hill said. She added when a watershed, river or other water source near a Nation is compromised, it affects how members hunt and fish for sustenance — especially in northern First Nations like Attawapiskat.

Hookimaw said he’s sceptical the complaint will spur the federal government to fix his First Nation’s water supply. Still, he hopes to continue to ramp up pressure on “Canada” to address his nation’s needs. 

“The government isn’t meeting the needs of our people,” Hookimaw said. “We’re not giving up. I’m not giving up, myself. I’m going to put up a fight and see where it goes — somebody has to do something.”



Isaac Phan Nay is a journalist based on the homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ Nations. He hosts The Road podcast and his work has appeared in many publications including Canada’s National Observer, the Breach and the Toronto Star.

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