Abuse of Indigenous Peoples Continues

Indigenous Communities Have a Human Right to Safe Drinking Water

2019 demonstration in Attawapiskat demanding government ensure safe drinking water.

Auditor General of Canada Karen Hogan has issued a damning report on the Trudeau government's failure to keep its pledge to eliminate boil water advisories in Indigenous communities by March 2021.

The Trudeau government's "commitment" made in 2015 covered about 1,050 public water systems servicing about 330,000 people. Fully one-third of all households on reserves were not included in that commitment because they get water from private wells, cisterns, or have no running water. Many others in remote northern communities are not monitored at all.

Indigenous Services Canada acknowledged in December that the commitment would not be met. The Prime Minister said difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had complicated the situation.

The Auditor General, however, concluded that the government never was on track -- and never will be given its reluctance to actually address the problem. Fifteen years after her department first reported on the matter in 2005 (and again in 2011), many Indigenous communities still do not have safe drinking water. She found that there is not even a regulatory regime in place for managing drinking water in First Nations communities.

Among the findings of the Auditor General's 2021 report are:

- The policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of water infrastructure remains 30 years out of date and have not kept pace with either advances in technology or actual costs of operating and maintaining infrastructure.

- The condition of water systems in First Nations communities, as measured by annual risk ratings, has not improved at all in the past five years -- despite more than a $1 billion spent.

- Of the total 160 long-term drinking water advisories in effect in 2015, 60 (37.5 per cent) remained in effect in 2020, impacting 41 First Nations communities.

- Last year, of 717 public water systems on First Nations reserves, 189 lacked a fully trained, certified operator and 401 lacked a fully trained and certified back-up operator. Underpayment of Indigenous community operators as compared to those in non-Indigenous communities was a major contributing factor in operator retention.

The Auditor-General concluded that access to clean, safe drinking water for Indigenous communities was a key to the government's reconciliation commitment and its failure to deliver is putting the health and safety of First Nations communities at risk.

In the last two decades alone, two-thirds of the First Nations communities in Canada have had a "drinking water advisory." The ongoing refusal of the Trudeau government, like the previous Harper government, to address this problem is a violation of the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples and the damage it causes to Indigenous health and well-being should be considered a crime.

In true Trudeau Liberal fashion though, the government agrees with everything the Auditor General recommends. The Minister responsible pledges not to fix the situation -- seemingly too much to ask -- but to be "transparent" by "giv[ing] everyone as much information as possible," and to keep "monitoring progress" and hold firm to a commitment to "do better." Such high-sounding phrases are a hallmark of the Trudeau Liberals, the worth of which can be judged by the results of their 2015 commitment. 

The racist colonial polices and practices of the Canadian state and its governments at all levels in violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples must be brought to an end.

(Auditor General of Canada, Report 3 -- Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities, 2021

This article was published in

Volume 51 Number 4 - April 4, 2021

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