Current Problems

Drinking Water Advisories

Sask. First Nations among many in Canada continuing to fight for safe drinking water

September 27, 2023

A woman carries water jugs on the Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario in September 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

NationTalk: NortheastNow: It’s something that you might take for granted in your home or office, but imagine that something as simple as a glass of water was not readily available to you.

As Canada marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation this Saturday, one issue that continues to plague First Nations in Canada is not having safe drinking water in 2023. For decades, some Indigenous communities have been without clean drinking water and despite progress made in recent years, dozens of advisories remain. 

According to Indigenous Services Canada, nearly 20 short-term drinking water advisories are in place for First Nations in Saskatchewan and four communities are under long-term advisories.

Across Canada, some water advisories have been in place for a long time, with Neskantaga First Nation, north of Fort Hope, Ont. being in a boil water advisory for 28 years, the longest in the country. 

The community was front and centre in the documentary film ‘Boil Alert’ which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) earlier this month. 

Before the film premiered; Director James Burns said it was important to focus on the “most egregious” examples of water insecurity.  “It begs the questions, ‘Why has nothing still been done?’” he said.  “We got to continue shedding light and giving people from those communities a voice to talk about what’s happening there.” 

At the heart of the documentary are stories from residents living with neurological disorders because of mercury poisoning or youth who have never had access to clean drinking water in their lifetime and the impact it has on their mental health. 

In 2008, another documentary called “Downstream” told the story of a whistleblower who raised the alarm on rising cancer rates for Indigenous people in the Fort Chipewyn area, believed to be linked to the nearby oil sands. 

Aside from oil and mercury, another concern that has come up in some First Nations communities is the chemical element manganese, a metal often found in stainless steel. 

While it is a naturally occurring element, it has been known to enter drinking water sources due to practices like mining but is also added to help treat water.  However, too much of the chemical in water can have damaging effects, including a neurological disorder known as Manganism or manganese poisoning. Its symptoms often resemble those of Parkinson’s Disease. 

According to The First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study done in 2019, of the 1,516 First Nations households in Canada that participated in the study, four per cent reported manganese in the water at levels exceeding Health Canada guidelines of 0.12 mg/l. 

That is just one of the issues the Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) in Saskatoon is addressing as it continues to work on educating the public as to where their drinking water comes from. 

“Around four to five per cent of students know the source of their drinking water. Only about 50 per cent of adults know where their drinking water comes from,” said Executive Director Nicole Hancock as she shared details taken from a survey of Saskatoon residents. 

The SDWF provides educational tools and tips to schools in Saskatoon and beyond, showing students where drinking water comes from and what can be done to ensure safe drinking water for everyone. 

Some of their educational tools also reference the psychological, emotional and spiritual harms that can come from not having safe drinking water.

Hancock said the work they do is in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action 18 and 19, which ask for all forms of government to acknowledge the rights of Indigenous people when it comes to proper health care and close the gaps between First Nations and non-First Nations people in health care outcomes. This includes infant mortality, maternal health, suicide, mental health, addictions, life expectancy, birth rates, infant and child health issues, and chronic diseases. 

In 2015, after securing a majority government in the general election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals promised to end all drinking water advisories by 2021 before the COVID-19 pandemic stalled many government projects. That pledge has now been pushed to 2026. 

Hancock admitted that if that is to become a reality, First Nations communities need to have a seat at the table. “First Nations people deserve a voice in terms of what kind of treatment system they have,” she said. “First Nations people deserve to have consistent, sufficient, safe drinking water.” 

Hancock said a reason for this is to make sure more harm is not being done in ensuring safe water, such as what might come from different treatment methods. Aside from growing concerns about manganese, there are other chemicals used in treatment that may cause harm if not regulated. 

“There’s probably lots of cases where you could add a bunch more chlorine to the water and maybe you could end the drinking water advisory,” she said. “When you add chlorine to water that has dissolved organic carbon…it reacts and forms. You’re going to increase the amount of trihalomethane and is therefore going to increase a probable carcinogen.” 

While the federal government has boasted that 84 per cent of advisories have been lifted, the long-term effects of the harms of unclean water have left many Indigenous people searching for answers and justice.

In December 2021, The First Nations Drinking Water Settlement between Canada and First Nations who were subject to drinking water advisories from 1995 to 2021. The $8 settlement provides nearly $2 billion in compensation to impacted First Nations, $50 million for those who experienced significant injuries due to drinking water advisories, and $6 billion for construction, upgrades and maintenance of water infrastructure on First Nations land.

The deadline for those wishing to make a claim is March 7, 2024. 

With files from The Canadian Press