The Edmonton Journal
Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. It is infuriating, therefore, that here in Canada, a state of inequality persists when it comes to the quality of water in First Nations communities.
Four Alberta First Nations have filed a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that authorities have failed to live up to their responsibilities in assisting on-reserve communities provide and maintain adequate drinking water systems.
The Tsuu T'ina and Blood First Nations in southern Alberta, and the Sucker Creek and Ermineskin First Nations in northern Alberta, filed the claim in Federal Court, asking for action that would force the federal government to fix the problems, pay damages and refund money the bands say Ottawa should have spent on the safe operations of water systems.
Though the merits of this particular case will have to be determined through the courts, the problems with water and waste water systems in First Nations communities across Canada have been well documented for more than a decade.
Since a 2001 analysis by Indian and Northern Affairs found three quarters of the more than 600 First Nations communities in Canada had risky water systems, there have been auditor general reports, Senate hearings and a national assessment of First Nations water systems.
In 2011, the auditor general concluded some First Nations reserves may still be years away from having drinking water protection comparable to Canadians who live off-reserve. "As of March 2010, more than half of water systems on reserve still posed a medium to high risk to the community members they served," according to the report. It found 74 of 103 water systems on Saskatchewan reserves at high or medium risk.
This is not to say there has been no action. Federal officials say about $3 billion has been spent related to First Nations water and waste water infrastructure between 2006 and 2014.
On the legislative side, the Harper government passed a new law last year establishing a system of enforceable water standards for First Nations communities. That law has come under criticism from First Nations because it sets standards without providing resources.
As of February, there were 92 First Nations communities across Canada under drinking water advisories. That is 92 too many.
After drinking-water catastrophes in Walkerton, Ont., and North Battleford, Canadians know all too well the perils of inadequate and ill-maintained systems. They also know how important it is for skilled workers to operate those systems.
There would be howls of protest drumming elected leaders from office in the rest of Canada if people felt they could not trust their water to drink or wash their children.
The federal government needs to invest significant energy into working with First Nations communities to solve this problem so communities do not feel compelled to turn to the courts. Every drop of money that goes into a court battle is a dollar wasted that could be put into making sure the water coming out of the taps on reserves across Canada is safe.