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Calgary’s water woes are giving residents a taste of rez life

June 12, 2024



It must be a strange, dystopian time in Calgary, like someone has turned the city into a giant rez.

Of course, if you’ve never been to a First Nations reserve, you probably wouldn’t know what it is like to live without clean water – heck, any water – coming out of your taps. But, sadly, Calgary is now getting a crash course.

A giant rupture in the city’s Bearspaw south feeder water main, is being attended to 24/7 by work crews and engineers, assures Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek. All available resources have been thrown at repairing a section of the 11-kilometre-long pipe, which is 2 metres wide in parts. A robot is scanning the insides for any other weak spots.

Apparently, it will be days before the city is back to normal – a wondrous feat if the city can both repair the water main quickly and test the water to make sure it is clean enough for human consumption. If they can fix the monstrous pipe that supplies 60 per cent of the city’s water, it will be just like the miracle of paved roads suddenly appearing in two Indigenous communities for Pope Francis’s visit to Maskwacis and Lac Ste. Anne. Almost two years ago, it took seemingly no time to pave the way for the Pontiff’s apology tour. Residents of Maskwacis watched in amazement as some of the pocked rez roads were suddenly smoothed out after decades of ignored infrastructure woes.

Globe readers in Calgary share their water saving tactics

But, until Calgary can pull off this latest feat of ingenuity, residents are being told to limit their water use – no long showers or full bath tubs, avoid flushing the toilet too many times, delay doing laundry and running dishwashers, shut off ice makers and humidifiers, and it goes without saying – don’t water the lawn.

Of course, a citywide fire ban remains in place – no fires in your backyard fire pits – because the water is needed for fire trucks. The fear is that a pumper could arrive at a burning home or business and there would be no water pressure, the hoses would be empty and lives would be in danger.

Ms. Gondek spelled it out: “If we don’t stick to using less water, the reality is we may run out of water. You could turn on a tap and nothing will come out. That is the reality, it’s not a scene out of a movie anymore.”

This isn’t the movies, Ms. Gondek. This is called reality, one that many First Nations communities experience on a regular basis. Generations have grown up without clean water in communities lacking proper piping or any infrastructure to support the ability to turn on your kitchen taps or flush the toilet. A new water treatment plant means nothing if the water can’t get into peoples homes.

Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario, home to 374 people, has had severe water problems for a quarter century – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen photos of children with skin infections parents say are because of the water. There remains a long-term drinking water advisory in the community. Although, there is an update here – Indigenous Services Canada is working on fixing the problem.

I can only imagine what my friends at Tsuut’ina First Nation, just west of Calgary, are thinking as this unfolds. Some residents of Tsuut’ina, one of the most beautiful communities I’ve ever seen, with a clear view of the Rockies, have for years been forced to buy bottled water because what comes out of the tap is brown and stinky.

If a commitment is made, changes can happen. But we shouldn’t have to wait decades to get some public and private buy in. Yes, this is not just a government issue – the right to clean water is something all of us, including those in the philanthropic and corporate sector, should be working toward.

Try running a doctor’s office, a school or a daycare centre without any water. Try responding to a burning house fire, with children trapped inside, when there are no functioning hoses and all you can do is watch it burn. I hope this never happens to anyone again, but the reality we live with is that it will – until all of Canada sets its moral compass straight and supports efforts to build proper infrastructure in First Nations communities.

Oh, and if the rez dogs move in, watch out Calgary! Take cover and give us a call. We’ll give you some tips on how to deal with them.