The following interview was conducted for my forthcoming article for the National Observer on the crisis concerning First Nations access to clean drinking water in reserve communities in Canada. Answers were provided by Kerry Black, a senior policy advisor with the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa:
- Do you expect the current government to fulfill their promise to end all boil water advisories on reserves by 2020?
The current commitment is to end all long-term drinking water advisories – this is an important distinction. There is conflicting dialogue on this, with the government sometimes saying boil-water versus drinking water advisories. Boil water advisories are a type of drinking water advisory. INAC uses boil water and drinking water interchangeably at times, and that is likely because the communities currently listed as having a Do Not Consume advisory (which is also a type of drinking water advisory) is not infrastructure that is funded by INAC (so one question there is: what happens to them?). However, there is the example of Northwest Angle 33 that has been on a DNC since February 2016. This is considered a long-term drinking water advisory, so this should be included in the commitment. This year’s budget said “long-term drinking water advisories”, so that is the terminology we will go with.
While the Government clearly intends to focus on this commitment – because they have been so vocal about it and because the metrics are so clear – there will be pressure to deliver. However meeting the commitment requires significant funding, requires projects that are currently slated to finish by 2020 to stay on time, and doesn’t necessarily include those communities that will roll-over into a long-term advisory between now and the commitment date. In addition, this doesn’t include those communities that have been on long-term advisories, but have been on and off the advisory for decades. These are important communities with systemic issues in their drinking water treatment, but they won’t be included in the commitment.
It is clear, based on how proactive the Government has been on this commitment, that they will make substantial progress towards this commitment. We believe the government will greatly benefit from working with First Nations to meet this commitment as First Nations are best-placed to understand the issues and priorities in their communities. First Nations-driven, community-based solutions are key. We are hopeful that long-term DWAs will be significantly reduced.
- What causes most boil water advisories on First Nations?
Drinking water advisories in communities are most often caused by equipment-related malfunctions (e.g. power outages, broken treatment processes, etc), microbiological concerns (e.g. e.coli) and chlorination issues (insufficient or no chlorination in place, as well as insufficient chlorine residuals in the distribution system). These are the primary causes for DWAs in First Nations communities.
- Have you had a chance to review the new report on water accessibility from the Council for Canadians and David Suzuki Foundation? What were your thoughts on it? Did this raise any new concerns for you? (You can access the report here: Canadians.org/blog/1-4-people-living-first-nations-reserve-may-not-have-clean-water)
The AFN provided some guidance on DWAs in First Nation communities to the Council and the Suzuki Foundation on policies and programs to date, funding to date, and how DWAs have been approached. The report highlights the need for long-term sustainable solutions to water treatment, not just focusing on removing DWAs – which is something the AFN has been pushing for quite some time. First-Nations-driven and community-based solutions are needed to ensure the provision of safe drinking water to First Nations.
- Where would you say are the most urgent water crises? In what ways does a lack of clean water impact a First Nations community’s quality of life?
It is dangerous to try and say where and what constitute the most urgent water crises. Access to safe, clean drinking water is a United Nations human right and anything that impacts this should be considered urgent. Our focus should be closing the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and the rest of Canada, and clean, safe water is a right many Canadians take for granted. Lack of clean water impacts has far-reaching socio-economic impacts including increased conflict at home. Water is part of the physical environment and is a social determinant of health impacting health inequalities for First Nations.
Impacts can include:
- Mothers and their ability to provide adequate nutrition to their children (breastfeeding necessitates mothers to be well-hydrated and formula requires clean water); to clean and bathe their children;
- Impacts at school, and ability for children to succeed in school;
- Ability to obtain and retain employment;
- Conflict in the home, heightened pressures;
- Other health-related issues (heart disease, diabetes, etc.).
- Can you confirm how many boil water advisories exist today on First Nations?
Health Canada only monitors drinking water south of the 60th parallel. Health Canada doesn’t report on individual wells or wells with fewer than 5 connections. They report 127 DWAs as of December 31st, with BC reporting an additional 16 Boil Water Advisories and 4 Do Not Consume advisories for a total of 20 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 18 First Nation communities in British Columbia as of February 2017. These numbers don’t include systems monitored by the Saskatoon Tribal Council. Therefore the 127 DWAs is just the starting point in terms of the number of advisories in First Nations communities.
- What solutions would you recommend for this issue?
Long-term sustainable solutions are needed that tackle the systemic issues affecting the provision of safe drinking water including:
- First Nations-driven approaches;
- Holistic funding models that take into account unique context of different FN communities, and include long-term operation and maintenance (Capital can be on the order of 20% of the project cost, with the funding for operation and maintenance representing a huge amount of funding needed for operation of a treatment plant);
- Skills training and capacity building with adequate funding for water operators who are paid at competitive rates;
It necessitates working with First Nations in collaborative processes, and doing away with top-down approaches that are imposed on First Nations, such as the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act.