Current Problems

Drinking Water Advisories

For First Nations in Alberta, drought only compounds existing water issues

April 24, 2024

There are more than 3,700 wells on reserves in Alberta, advisory group says

A photo from above a group of nine people standing around a fire hydrant in a natural setting surrounded by trees and grass.
A group of water operators stand around a fire hydrant during a 2023 training session with the First Nations Technical Services Advisory Group on Beaver First Nation territory in northern Alberta. (TSAG)

CBC Indigenous: Like many in Alberta with a severe drought bearing down, Rupert Meneen has water on his mind.

“Our source water is a little creek that runs near our community,” says the chief of Tallcree First Nation in northern Alberta, roughly 100 kilometres southeast of High Level.

“The only time we pull water out of that creek is when it’s running high and the spring runoff has come down. This year we’re worried that there’s going to be no spring runoff.”

It’s a reality faced by many First Nations in Alberta, even without the drought — limited access to safe drinking water due to a variety of factors, including lack of funding, infrastructure or source water protection, while caught in jurisdictional tension between the federal and provincial government.

Hidden in plain sight

The situation is one of the legacies of colonialism. Many First Nations signed treaties with the Crown giving up much of their traditional territory in exchange for certain ongoing obligations from the federal government.

However, the government often neglected to ensure reserves had access to clean water, leading to chronic problems in many Indigenous communities. In some cases, surrounding industrial or commercial activities degraded the quality of the water that flowed into their territory.

In 2021, a class-action lawsuit brought against Canada over drinking water advisories was settled for $8 billion. More than 100 First Nations — including several in Alberta — as well as thousands of potential individual claimants from hundreds of First Nations are eligible for compensation due to years of long-term water advisories.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the ministry responsible for delivering on the federal government’s obligations to Indigenous peoples, maintains online lists of recent water advisories on First Nations reserves. There is a map showing long-term advisories for public systems funded by the government, and a list of those without government funding, as well a list of short-term advisories.

The only Alberta advisories still active on any of those pages are four short-term ones. This might give the impression that few problems with water supply exist on reserves in Alberta.

However, ISC only funds public water systems with at least five household connections. Because the cost of building pipes to each home can be prohibitive, many communities rely on smaller systems with fewer connections, or individual wells and cisterns. Those are not captured by the federal lists of advisories or other statistics.

UN expert discusses First Nations right to safe drinking water

WATCH | UN expert discusses First Nations right to safe drinking water: 

7 days ago, Duration 1:39

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, talks about Canada’s failure to ensure safe drinking water on reserves.

Click one the following link to view the video:

“What we know about drinking water advisories is actually just the tip of the iceberg,” says Kerry Black, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Calgary with a focus on water management in Indigenous communities.

“It’s actually a much bigger deal.”

According to statistics from the First Nations Technical Services Advisory Group (TSAG), there are more than 5,600 cisterns and 3,700 wells on reserves in Alberta.

TSAG plays a key role in water access in First Nations communities in Alberta. The non-profit organization was created in 1998, mandated to take over various technical service roles previously provided to First Nations by the federal government. It operates under the guidance of a steering committee of chiefs from Treaties 6, 7 and 8, including Meneen.

Two men stand in front of large and complex equipment and pipes.
Brad Tourangeau, left, a TSAG circuit rider trainer, stands with water operator Shannon Gladue in front of water treatment equipment. (TSAG)

The organization’s circuit rider training program provides advisory and technical support to enable First Nations in Alberta to operate their community drinking water and wastewater systems, but not smaller, private systems like cisterns and wells.

“I might be pretty bold here and I might be wrong,” says TSAG CEO Vaughn Paul, “but I think we don’t have as many boil-water advisories in Alberta because of [our] team.”

New bill, mixed response

The drinking water settlement also resulted in the federal government repealing Harper-era legislation that was long criticized by First Nations, and putting forward a proposed new law — the First Nations Clean Water Act, or C-61.

The long-awaited legislation – introduced in December by Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and currently at second reading in the House of Commons – is intended to create minimum national drinking water and wastewater standards in First Nations.

“It’s forced the government legally to respond to the concerns that have been raised throughout that settlement agreement,” says Black, who was an adviser to AFN during that process, but spoke to CBC News in her capacity as an independent researcher.

“That’s very different than a politician standing up and making a statement or a commitment in a budget. A legally binding settlement agreement is another tool for First Nations to utilize to access additional funding to address their needs.

“And it does recognize that there was harm done. And that’s really important, I think, to have a recognition that the way in which we were operating water and wastewater programs across First Nations for the last 20-30 years was wrong,” she says.

The government worked with the Assembly of First Nations in crafting the bill and held consultation sessions over several years, but has previously said it will not be releasing a list of nations with which it consulted.

However, the bill has found a decidedly mixed reception among First Nations, with some leaders praising it, some castigating it, and others finding both flaws and first steps in the text.

Key points of contention for many include the legislation’s lack of specific funding and how it approaches source water protection.

The legislation proposes to empower nations by devolving more responsibility for decision-making around water.

But Paul says TSAG has first-hand knowledge of the state of existing water infrastructure in First Nations in Alberta. He estimates that the federal government has a liability of about $500 million in the next decade to address aging water plants — a liability he’s concerned will be downloaded to First Nations.

“That scares the crap out of me,” he says. “We don’t disagree that we can do better than those guys in Canada from ISC if we’re funded and resourced properly. Our chiefs will say, ‘We don’t want this broken down jalopy that they’re foisting upon us.’ They’re saying, ‘Fix it, get it up to proper operational requirements and standards and yeah, we’ll see you later… You’re more of a hindrance than a help.'”

In a statement, ISC said the proposed legislation “would require the federal government to make best efforts to provide funding that is adequate, predictable, stable, sustainable and needs-based and that meets actual costs for water services on First Nation lands.”

Jurisdictional tensions

While the bill seeks to establish agreements between different levels of governments on source water protection, some First Nations say it doesn’t go far enough.

While the treaties create obligations and a relationship between First Nations and the federal government, water outside First Nations territory generally falls under provincial responsibility.

A man stands wearing a feathered headdress.
Rupert Meneen is the chief of the Tallcree First Nation in northern Alberta. (TSAG)

“It becomes jurisdictionally really challenging,” says Black. “A big part of that is that water flows. And so water flows in and out of the reserve and the province has responsibilities outside the reserve and the feds have responsibilities within the reserve in partnership with First Nations. And so you get a really muddied space to work within.”

Meneen says the current Alberta government under Premier Danielle Smith seems more interested in picking fights with the federal government than in bridging jurisdictional gaps.

“The province right now is just not a good partner for us,” he says. “For Canada to think that the province is going to treat us with respect that we deserve — I think that’s just not going to happen.”

‘Are they going to put me in front of industry?’

Callum Reid, a spokesperson for the Alberta ministry of Indigenous Relations, pointed to the agreements like those signed in 2019 between the province and two First Nations, Ermineskin and Kainai, to provide connections to regional water systems.

“Alberta’s government is working to get the water lines to First Nations borders and we will keep pushing for the federal government to fund water systems within First Nation boundaries,” said Reid in an emailed statement.

However, the water has yet to flow to either community. Ermineskin is still negotiating a formal grant agreement with the province.

Another concern of First Nations is the province’s priority system, which states that when there is not enough water for all users, those with the oldest licences are first in line. However, due to the 19th century era of colonization that the system dates from, First Nations were typically not included.

This lack of licensing became an issue as Alberta’s population and demand for water grew. Today, most First Nations with water licences are relatively junior compared to other regional users, including agriculture and industry.

“If there is a shortage of water, how am I going to guarantee that my community gets water before [industry]?” says Meneen. “Are they going to put me in front of industry? Are they going to put me in front of the farmer that needs water? … Or am I last in the pecking order?”

The Alberta government did not answer a question about whether Indigenous communities with low-ranking priority numbers could be at risk of water shortages this year.

‘What is our priority?’

Fears of the looming drought coincide with a visit to Canada by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation.

After travelling across Canada for nearly two weeks and meeting with leaders from Indigenous groups, government and industry, Arrojo-Agudo said in a news conference last week that Canada’s failure to provide First Nations with clean drinking water constitutes a clear human rights violation.

“I have witnessed the marginalization of First Nations on reserves, where in many cases the human rights to drinking water and sanitation are not respected,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

A man stands and looks at the camera in front of a soft-focus background of autumn trees.
Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation. (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)

In an interview with CBC News, Arrojo-Agudo described a meeting with representatives from the Alberta oil industry, who he said were “being proud” as they listed off the many industrial and extractive activities in the Athabasca river basin, which he found concerning as the risks to the ecosystem of each project were compounded “exponentially.”

The rapporteur agreed with the chiefs who met with him, including Meneen, that protection of water sources and the issue of junior licences must be addressed.

“What is our priority? If we have the priority of guaranteeing the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation for everybody, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, there will not be a problem at this level,” he said, noting that it was more sensible to have managed shortages among economic users than for communities.

“I say at least, it is necessary that they recover jurisdiction on the sources and ecosystems from which they depend daily for their drinking water. So this is some question that involves provinces, but also federal government and reserves and First Nations.”

Uncertain year ahead

Arrojo-Agudo, who will present his findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September, made a positive impression on Meneen.

“In my opinion, he listened. I think he understands the issues that we have.”

In the meantime, Tallcree First Nation and others are trying to find contingency plans during the drought.

“We’ve started talking to ISC to say look, we might have an issue with water this year. What can we do, what can you guys do?” Meneen said.

“If I have to get water trucks, that’s going to get pretty costly for us.”


Taylor Lambert, Journalist

Taylor Lambert is the producer of investigative and enterprise journalism at CBC Edmonton. His books and longform reporting about Alberta have won numerous awards. Send tips in confidence to, or anonymously via SecureDrop.