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Drinking Water Advisories

UN expert finds ‘flagrant breaches’ of First Nations rights to clean water

April 19, 2024

Special rapporteur on water decries marginalization, repression of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

UN expert discusses First Nations right to safe drinking water

22 hours ago, Duration 1:39

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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.

CBC Indigenous: Canada’s failure to provide First Nations with clean drinking water constitutes a flagrant human rights violation, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation says. 

The official, following a whirlwind formal Canadian tour, expressed a litany of concerns in a preliminary report delivered verbally on Friday in Ottawa. 

“I finish this almost two-week visit with mixed feelings: admiration but also frustration and even indignation,” Pedro Arrojo-Agudo told reporters at the Lord Elgin hotel.

“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.”

Arrojo-Agudo’s brisk tour of Canada included stops in Ontario, Nunavut, British Columbia and Alberta. He met with government officials, civil society groups, Indigenous people and others in Ottawa, Iqaluit, Toronto, Fort McMurray, Alta., Vancouver and Smithers, B.C.

The visit was eye-opening for Arrojo-Agudo, a physicist, economics professor, winner of the Goldman prize for environmental activism and former member of the Spanish parliament.

He was appointed to the UN post in 2020 as an independent expert tasked with studying and reporting on human rights.

He said Canada is generally perceived as a democratic rights-upholding country, so he found it troubling to receive reports of criminalization of First Nations people opposing natural resource projects on their land.

“I’m sadly surprised by this criminalization of Indigenous river defenders which [will likely] damage Canada’s international reputation,” he said.

Arrojo-Agudo’s findings weren’t all bad, however, and he did offer Canada some praise.

He said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the House of Commons’ unanimous agreement that genocide occurred at residential school, and the passage of legislation on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples together provide a benchmark for international leadership.

Long-term advisories ‘highly significant’

But nevertheless, the official reported evidence of human rights violations and cause for concern.

In particular, he said the term “drinking water advisories” to describe the non-availability of safe drinking water in First Nations communities is concerning.

“It is highly significant that First Nations reserves are affected by what are called drinking water advisories, or long-term drinking water advisories, which are nothing more than flagrant breaches of the human right to safe drinking water,” he said.

“The extended and frequent unavailability of potable water — not in Canada, everywhere, for any reason — signifies a violation of human rights.”

In 2015, while running for prime minister, Justin Trudeau promised to ensure all First Nations had access to potable water by spring 2021, a deadline he missed by a wide margin. 

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu’s office responded to the rapporteur’s findings in a statement to CBC Indigenous.

“A lot more work still must be done so that all First Nations have access to clean drinking water. Decades of discriminatory funding will not be undone overnight, but there is progress,” wrote spokesperson Jennifer Kozelj.

“In 2015, 105 long-term water advisories were in place. This Liberal government increased funding by 150 per cent in water infrastructure and today, 28 advisories remain with a plan in place to lift them all.”

Arrojo-Agudo acknowledged the government is making progress and lauded the tabling of First Nations water legislation, but he said the right to clean water still must be enshrined in federal and provincial law.

He said the Canadian state has historically forced First Nations to live in harsh conditions on reserves, meaning the government is obliged to provide clean water and adequate sanitation that meets national standards.

The official also cited the mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario, Neskantaga First Nation’s nearly 30-year boil-water advisory, oil pollution of waterways in Alberta and persecution of Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc peoples in their unceded territories.

He declined to answer directly when asked if Ottawa’s efforts to provide clean water to First Nations are sufficient.

In a news release, he urged Canada to step up efforts to eliminate discrimination and marginalization of Indigenous people and fully uphold water rights for all.

Arrojo-Agudo is slated to present a full report to the UN’s human rights council in September.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.