Current Problems

Drinking Water Advisories

Calgarians aren’t the only people in Canada in the midst of a water crisis. But they’re the only ones we seem to care about

July 4, 2024

Within hours of a water main break in Calgary, repair work kicked off. It’s a sharp contrast to what happens in many First Nations communities..

Calgary pipeline break
The damaged section of a water pipe is shown in this handout image provided by the city of Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO City of Calgary 

Toronto Star: When a massive water main burst in Calgary in June, it felt for many residents like the world turned upside down. Mayor Jyoti Gondek declared a local state of emergency, and suddenly, 60 per cent of the city was left wondering how they’d manage with less water for three to five weeks. For most Calgarians, this was a shocking and inconvenient blip in otherwise comfortable lives. Then, a week before the start of the Calgary Stampede, Mayor Gondek stated repairs “could be done sooner than expected.”

Imagine if this wasn’t a temporary crisis, but a constant, long-term reality. For many First Nations in Canada, water issues are not resolved in weeks but linger for years, even decades.

The speed and efficiency with which Calgary responded to its water crisis was impressive. Within hours, contractors were mobilized and repair work kicked off. It’s a sharp contrast to what happens in many First Nations communities, where the painful wait for clean water stretches on. These communities often face a bureaucratic nightmare that slows progress to a crawl. First Nations communities are rarely afforded the opportunity to “call in favours” from provincial and federal governments as Calgary’s mayor has been able to do.

Research highlights how, despite federal promises to resolve long-term drinking water advisories, progress has been slow and uneven. As of June 2024, 30 advisories are still in effect. This isn’t just about a lack of funding — though that’s part of it — but also about systemic barriers that make it difficult to implement and maintain effective water systems.

In the midst of these struggles, there is some hope. Proposed legislation on drinking water and wastewater, although not yet moving through Parliament, aims to establish a framework for sustainable and safe drinking water and wastewater systems in First Nations communities. It recognizes the need for a joint effort between federal, provincial and First Nations governments. It’s a crucial step forward, promising to create a legal framework that ensures long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes.

If Canada is truly committed to reconciliation and the recognition of Indigenous rights — as we say we are — then legislation like this can help us start walking the talk.

As for how we got here, it’s easy to point fingers, but the federal government isn’t entirely to blame. Sure, government allocates funds, but the deeper issues are systemic racism, invisibility and the undervaluation of First Nations communities. If Canadians in general didn’t value Indigenous people less than other people, the persistence of these boil-water advisories would be a scandal that government would address with urgency.

Often, there’s only one locally trained water operator for an entire community. Picture that — a single person responsible for something as essential as water.

The complexity of the problem is also often misconstrued. It isn’t just a matter of building new infrastructure. These communities face challenges including inadequate housing and support, as well as the lingering impacts of intergenerational trauma. Training and retaining skilled water operators is another significant hurdle. Imagine getting trained for a job only to realize there’s no support system to help you stay and thrive in your community. 

Solving this massive injustice isn’t just about feeling sympathy; it’s about acting with ambition and urgency. We need to push for changes that address these systemic issues. This means more than just providing financial aid. It means ensuring that these communities have the internal capacity and support to manage their own resources.

The water crisis in Calgary should be a wake-up call for everyone in Canada. It’s a serious yet temporary inconvenience for the city, and a stark reminder of the ongoing struggles faced by First Nations communities, inhabitants of this land who have stewarded it responsibly for millennia. Access to clean and safe water is a basic human right. We owe it to First Nations communities to bring their struggles to the forefront and commit to lasting, meaningful change.

By Meshall Awan Contributor

Meshall Awan is a communications specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation