Where would we be without water to drink, to wash and cook with, and to keep us healthy and alive? Water is essential. But as we mark another World Water Day, many First Nations communities in Canada still don’t have access to safe water.
Five years ago today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a commitment of $1.8 billion over five years to address the water crisis so First Nations wouldn’t need to boil water to make it drinkable, rely on bottled water, or evacuate their communities because their water is unsafe to use.
But today, more than 60 long-term water advisories are still in place.
An Auditor General report released last month makes clear that Canada still isn’t taking all the necessary steps to end the crisis. In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented challenges communities face from source to tap, and what we called for then remains as urgent today. The federal government needs to clearly show how the promised money has been spent and whether it has prioritized the most critical problems. Greater investment is also needed in operations and maintenance so more communities don’t go on water advisories or can stay off them once systems are fixed. Solutions need to be long-term, not band-aid fixes.
Indigenous people on-reserve are not protected by safe drinking water regulations when they turn on their tap, unlike people off-reserve. This can’t continue. Any safe drinking water regulation must be co-created with First Nations and come with funding commitments that ensure communities can meet any standards created.
A United Nations human rights committee confirmed, after hearing testimony from several First Nations women, that Canada has a human rights obligation to guarantee safe drinking water in First Nations communities. Canada’s Minster of Indigenous Services has made his commitment clear — boil water advisories need to end. But we need transparency and clear timelines for how this will happen, and ensure full participation of First Nations – many of whom have a spiritual relationship with water and are more likely to recognize problems and identify potential solutions.
There are many steps to ending this complicated crisis, but all of them require community participation and respect for human rights.