Canada Fails Again: First Nation Communities Without Clean Water

Unclean water in first nations communities


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had no problem finding $7 billion dollars to buy Trans Mountain oil pipelines – so, where’s the money to pay for clean water pipelines in Indigenous communities? It may be hard to believe, but many First Nations in Canada still lack access to clean drinking water.

This week, the Auditor General for Canada (AG) released her report on whether Canada is providing enough support to ensure that First Nations have access to safe drinking water. The answer was a clear no. This is despite the Liberal government’s promise back in 2015 to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations by March 2021.

The report entitled “Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities” found that federal policies and funding amounts did not align with its promise to end all long-term drinking water advisories (DWA) on reserve. But the story doesn’t begin or end with DWAs – that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Auditor General Report on Clean Water


This crisis has been a long time in the making. First Nations would not be struggling to protect and access clean water if our sovereign jurisdictions, laws, and governing powers over our traditional territories and resources were respected. Canada has created and maintained this First Nation water crisis after generations of colonization, genocide, land dispossession, and control of our water sources.

And no, there is nothing in any of the treaties that explicitly stated the Crown could take all the water, control it, monetize it, and then deny access to clean water to First Nations. But that is exactly what has happened, despite the fact that the United Nations has recognized access to safe drinking water as a human right over a decade ago.

Canada continues to act as an outlaw, breaking Indigenous laws, its own domestic laws, and international laws in relation to human rights. When it comes to the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples – including the right to access, govern and protect water sources – Canada literally ignores its so-called “rule of law”. The continued failure to provide clean drinking water to First Nations or other Indigenous communities like the Inuit, is a prime example of systemic racism.

The Crown first steals Indigenous lands, resources, and waterways through fraud, deception, and countless breaches of its own laws, and then reserves unto itself jurisdiction in the Constitution Act 1867 over “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians”. In other words, the federal government has assumed legal and financial responsibility for both water and water infrastructure on First Nations reserves. Canada’s willful neglect of its assumed obligations has left numerous First Nations communities without clean water.

Dirty water in clear jar


First Nations have been calling on the federal government to address the lack of access to clean water for decades. In 1995, Health Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) found that 25% of water systems on reserve posed health and safety risks. In 2001, INAC found “significant risks” to water quality and safety in 75% of water systems on reserve – a shocking number.

A decade later in 2011, INAC reported to the AG that more than 50% of water systems still posed significant risks to community members. In 2014, it was 43% of water systems in trouble and in 2021, and that risk level hasn’t changed.

At a press conference about the AG’s report, Indigenous Services (ISC) Minister Marc Miller said that while they had hoped to address all long-term drinking water advisories, they lost “a construction season” due to the pandemic. One construction season? If we only start the clock from 1995 forward, then they’ve lost 25 years of construction seasons.

The AG pointed out that the delays by ISC were there long before the pandemic and referenced previous AG reports that have consistently raised concerns about the lack of clean drinking water in First Nations.

And let’s not forget the numbers here. In addition to the 60 long-term DWAs that are left to be resolved – half of those have been in place for more than a decade. Imagine an entire decade in Fredericton, Toronto, Winnipeg or Saskatoon without clean drinking water, where there was only enough water to bathe once a week. That would NEVER be tolerated anywhere else for any other community, but those in First Nations. The situation would be treated as the urgent crisis that it is.

Where’s Trudeau’s pipeline for water to First Nations?


The federal government’s less than sincere commitment to urgently address the water crisis in First Nations is betrayed by the fact that their policies are decades old. The sad reality is that no one in the federal government has been concerned enough about the health, safety, and well-being of First Nations families, to treat the lack of access to safe drinking water as a crisis.

In fact, over the years, AG reports found that the federal government couldn’t even be bothered to do annual inspections for all the water systems, despite their medium to high-risk. It’s as if the words “significant risks” to community members were merely notations in a report and not significant warnings for risks to health, safety and well-being of First Nations. 

The Auditor General also noted that some of the federal government’s policies in relation to water systems on reserve are decades old and some were written in the 1960’s. She further noted that they have not amended their policy in relation to funding for the operations and maintenance of water systems on reserve for over 30 years.

This means that the funding that the federal government provides to First Nations to maintain their water systems, does not take into account new technologies, the actual costs to maintain the systems and/or the risk-level and actual condition of the water systems. On top of that, they only provide up to 80% of the costs determined by this outdated policy, while at the same time paying First Nation water operators 30% less than the rest of Canada.

Is there any wonder why the federal government is constantly chasing long-term drinking water advisories and never seems to catch up? The ever-changing number of First Nation communities without clean water should be considered a national emergency – something that can and should have been rectified by now.

Think about it this way: if your roof has a leak and it would cost $10,000 to repair but you only “invest” $1,000, what happens? Well, your roof is not entirely fixed, so it continues to leak, causing more damage to the roof and the rest of the house. The next year, it will cost you $30,000 to fix the roof and the extra repairs for the house. Partial solutions to the water crisis serves to make the problem worse.

This is the point the AG made: “If funding to operate and maintain water systems is insufficient, water systems may continue to deteriorate at a faster-than-expected rated.” This is exactly what has happened.

First Nations Water Problems a Crisis of Canada’s Own Making


It’s important to dig into the numbers to truly understand the full scope of this problem. The AG’s report was limited to only 1,050 “public water systems” in 600+ First Nations. This is because ISC’s water policies and funding formulas do not provide support for those who rely on wells or cisterns. Worse than that, their water policies do not support those First Nations without any running water, let alone clean water!

And this isn’t a small number. More than one third of all households on reserve are in the category of wells and cisterns, or have no running water at all. So, the number of First Nation communities without access to clean water is a far bigger problem than it would first appear.

It’s also important to look at how ISC has differentiated between short-term and long-term DWAs. The government seems to be congratulating itself for having “only” 60 long-term DWAs left, meanwhile over the same period, the AG confirmed that there were 1,281 short-term DWAs.

More than 10% of those short-term DWAs were for periods of two months or more. But worse than that, the AG also found some First Nations had multiple short-term DWAs, that when added up, were more than a year in total cumulative length. But they don’t get counted in long-term DWAs, which effectively misrepresents the seriousness of short-term DWAs. Further, with long-term DWAs, they get counted as “lifted” or “resolved” if temporary measures are made to bring in water – even if the deficiencies in the water system have not been remediated.

DWA numbers are clearly not the most transparent or effective way to measure whether or not the water crisis has been remedied. The more transparent measure would be whether each household on First Nation reserves and each daycare, school, healthcare centre, community building, and business, has consistently safe, reliable, clean drinking water and sanitation. These numbers could easily be recorded as an aggregate and disaggregated set of statistics.

That’s the number that matters – how many First Nation households are without access to clean water – not how many DWAs you lifted one day, but were re-imposed the next. That’s a shell game that only serves to hide a much larger problem and certainly doesn’t respect the human right of First Nations to access clean water.

CTV News: AG Reports Released


Canada brags about having 84,000 kms of pipelines all over the country servicing the oil and gas industry. When confronted with losing the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, Trudeau managed to find $7 billion dollars in a hurry to buy it. So, where are the pipelines bringing clean water to First Nations Trudeau?

There are mancamps full of thousands of mostly men flown into First Nation territories, in even in the remotest of places, that have access to healthcare, safe, mould-free housing, healthy food, and clean drinking water and sanitation. So, where is the healthcare, housing, food, and clean water for First Nations?

Canada’s military brings millions of litres of fresh water to other countries in emergencies – so where’s the clean water for First Nations? Canada has spent more than $240 billion dollars on pandemic relief measures, but there isn’t enough money to ensure that no First Nation goes without access to clean water during a pandemic? This isn’t a matter of lack of resources, these are conscious policy choices being made to breach the rights of First Nations, with significant impacts to their physical and mental health and well-being.

Minister Miller says they lost a construction season during the pandemic and that’s why they couldn’t address the water crisis. Yet, the construction season for oil and gas pipelines, the tar sands, mining projects and other extractive projects and infrastructure continued during the pandemic. But construction couldn’t proceed on water pipelines? These excuses are unacceptable.

CTV Your Morning: First Nation Boil Water Advisories

No one is buying the excuses made by Liberal politicians anymore. The reason all First Nation households don’t have access to clean water is widespread, longstanding, systemic form of racism and a denial of basic human rights.

It is the same reason why there is a housing crisis on reserve; a humanitarian crisis of First Nations children in foster care; crisis-level incarceration rates of First Nations; and why there are thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in this country. Policy choices are being made by bureaucrats with full knowledge of the harms inflicted.


 Until we address the racism in Canada’s laws, policies, and practices, we’ll never end the ongoing breaches of human rights against First Nations or their current lack of access to clean water. There is no such thing as incremental equality or partial human rights. You either have them or you don’t. And clearly, First Nations have neither equality nor the protection of human rights.

We need Canadians to stand up and say this isn’t right. We need Canadians to use their voices, their numbers, their powers and spheres of influence to demand better. Demand that the federal government bring every resource to bear to ensure safe, reliable, clean drinking water and sanitation to every single household on First Nation reserves. Not in two years, three years or after the next election – but this year. Next year’s reports need to count First Nation households without access to clean water and sanitation – not DWAs.

You can send emails, letters and petitions to Ministers, MPs, Senators and even the Prime Minister. You can withhold political and public support for politicians and make it conditional on ending the crisis. You can use your research, social media or publicity skills to support First Nations educate the public. There is no end to what Canadians can do. Now that you know better, you can put that knowledge into action for justice.


 Canada needs to treat this water crisis as the national emergency it is and work in partnership with First Nations to address the entirety of the crisis – not just long-term DWAs. Canada needs to treat this situation with the same priority, urgency and resources as if this was in their own backyards.

We all know it would only take a week without access to clean water for any of these politicians to call in the army in their town or city if this happened to them. So, they need to stop with the excuses and simply get it done. And while they are at it, they should also return some of the lands, resources, and waterways they took – so this isn’t a problem in the future. 

Access to clean water for all First Nations should never be considered a policy option.

Pam Palmater Website