It is easy to sympathize with four Alberta First Nations communities who have launched a suit against Ottawa for allegedly being remiss in ensuring that reserves across Canada have potable water. The four — Ermineskin, Sucker Creek, Tsuu T’ina and Kainai — are suing on behalf of the almost 75 per cent of reserves with poor quality drinking water.
Some Alberta reserves have been under boil-water advisories for 30 years — long enough for a generation of children to grow up knowing nothing about turning on a tap and having clean water flow out. Then, there are places like Garden Hill First Nation in Manitoba, where, during an outbreak of tuberculosis several years ago, a Health Canada official urged then-Chief David Harper to tell residents to wash their hands frequently. Harper replied that people couldn’t do that, as Garden Hill has no running water. That such Third World conditions exist in a First World country is inexcusable, and the frustration that led to the lawsuit is palpable.
Conditions vary widely on reserves. A federal assessment of 571 First Nations communities done three years ago found 39 per cent of water systems had “major deficiencies” affecting water quality and health. In all, about 73 per cent of First Nations communities live with serious health risks from their water. At the same time, the 2011 auditor general’s report stated that Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs “do not ensure that drinking water is tested on a regular basis.” Decaying and inadequate infrastructure is part of the problem, as is some residents’ inability to pay to have their homes connected. The technology for treating and testing water may also be out of date.
Yet, if the Canadian government bears much of the culpability for it, there is also room for First Nations to step up to the plate. The same government assessment noted that there are on-reserve water systems with “improper operation by poorly equipped technicians.” The assessment found a definite shortage of properly trained technicians, with only 54 per cent of drinking water systems being run by a fully qualified operator. On remote reserves, that figure drops to 26 per cent.
Ottawa allots about $10 million annually for training First Nations residents to run their water systems, but there simply aren’t enough people being trained. In such cases, there is little the government can do to ameliorate conditions. A bureaucrat in Ottawa simply cannot run a water system on a reserve; residents need to volunteer to qualify. Aboriginal Affairs estimates that 60 per cent of the risk for reserves that do have systems in place is linked to the operators’ record keeping and procedures. As the people of Walkerton, Ont., learned tragically, one can have state-of-the-art equipment, but if the people operating the system are incompetent or are poorly trained, the consequences can be deadly.
If nothing else, the First Nations’ lawsuit may finally clarify how much of the problem is of the government’s making and how much can be remediated by training of First Nations residents. Then, both sides can get to work meeting their respective responsibilities.