British Columbia

Okanagan First Nation sues federal government for clean drinking water but minister says it's 'entirely safe'

The Okanagan Indian Band is suing the federal government over Ottawa's alleged failure to improve the water system on the 100 square kilometre reserve.

Band chief claims they have 7 separate water systems and they're all substandard

'Our citizens shouldn't have to jeopardize their health by turning on their taps,' said Chief Byron Louis. (Okanagan Indian Band)

A First Nation based in Vernon is suing the federal government to try to get better drinking water, but the minister of Indigenous services insists the band's drinking water is entirely safe.

The Okanagan Indian Band is filing a lawsuit over what it feels is Ottawa's failure to improve the water system on the 100 square kilometre reserve which draws water from a series of underground aquifers.

Those systems rely on groundwater wells, and the band says many of those wells supply untreated water to hundreds of homes. 

"There's about seven systems, but they've only made upgrades to one of those systems," said Okanagan Chief Byron Louis. "Our largest water system is under a do not consume order."

Louis says the situation is made worse by the fact individual septic fields may be contaminating drinking water. He says the bands' water systems have not been significantly upgraded since they were installed in the 1970s.

"It's no different than any other community," said Louis. "Our citizens shouldn't have to jeopardize their health by turning on their taps." 

Louis says the band has worked with Ottawa to try to find a solution but after nine years it is tired of talking.

"We lost faith in a system I would characterize as negligent. We are stuck in limbo between a federal policy that underfunds our system and provincial infrastructure resources we cannot access."

Federal minister says chief's comments surprising

However, federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan told CBC he was surprised at Louis's comments.

"To be honest, my regional officials talk to Chief Louis all time, and this is the first we've heard of a lot of this," said O'Regan, who maintained the community's water is entirely safe.

"It's safe because it's certified," said O'Regan.

He said there are six on-reserve water systems and five are certified as safe to drink from. The sixth, he added, was deemed "high-risk" due to unacceptable levels of manganese, but the First Nations Health Authority addressed the problem and certification for the final water system is coming "very soon."

"People need to know their water is safe. That is very very important, I can't emphasize that enough."

There are about 2,000 members of the Okanagan First Nation and thousands more residents with recreational homes and properties on its lands.

The federal government committed to removing all long-term drinking water advisories on reserves by 2021.

Eighty-seven water quality advisories have been lifted since 2015, according to the Indigenous Services Canada website.  Fifty-six remain in place.