Bad water: 'Third World' conditions on First Nations in Canada

Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade, a CBC News investigation has revealed.

Two-thirds of First Nations have been under at least 1 water advisory between 2004 and 2014

Unable to drink local water for 16 years

7 years ago
Duration 3:49
B.C. First Nations community can't boil away these impurities. Duncan McCue reports

Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade, a CBC News investigation has revealed. The numbers show that 400 out of 618 First Nations in the country had some kind of water problem between 2004 and 2014. 

The longest running water advisory is in the Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario, where residents have been boiling their water for 20 years. 

Nazko First Nation, Alexis Creek First Nation and Lake Babine, all in British Columbia, are next on the list with water problems spanning 16 years.

Between 2004 and 2014, 93 per cent of all First Nations in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick reported at least one water advisory in their communities. Alberta is close behind at 87 per cent.

The lowest provincial rate is 51 per cent in Manitoba.

Three-and-a-half-year-old Hailey Sakanee takes a sip of treated water. Her community, Neskantaga First Nation, has been under a water advisory for two decades. (CBC)
A variety of factors can trigger a water advisory, ranging from bad pipe connections, low pressure, improper filtration and disinfection right up to contamination with bacteria. The most common kind of advisory, by far, is a boil water advisory.   

"It's absolutely outrageous," said Cindy Blackstock, director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and associate professor at the University of Alberta. "That very absolute necessity of life is being denied to a whole group of people in this country as wealthy as ours."

"You end up with a real sense of despair and stress in these communities," she added, "and it could be alleviated by one simple promise...provide everyone a good glass of water, and stop discriminating in service provision."

On any given day, official water advisories on First Nation communities can number 150 or more. Even though experts can't pin down the exact reason, that number has steadily climbed over the last decade.

"I was very surprised to see the number of First Nations within each province that were on boil water advisories," said Lalita Bharadwaj, associate professor in the University of Saskatchewan's School of Public Health.

Bharadwaj said governments have spent about $2 billion on the issue between 2001 and 2013, but the problems are as severe as ever. She said a more targeted approach is needed, along with better communication between government and First Nations.

"The percentages across the country are extremely high," she said. "That says to me that the situation is a perennial issue, that not enough attention has been paid."

"So 10 years ago, we were at 30 per cent of the water treatment systems in First Nations posed a high risk to safe drinking water, and today we have the same."

Chronic government underfunding of water systems is to blame for the lack of progress, said Emma Lui of the Council of Canadians. She said a national assessment commissioned by the federal government found $470 million was needed per year over 10 years. 

"Giving $165 million year after year is simply not enough," said Lui.

'Appalling conditions,' says Nazko chief

In the interior of B.C., the Nazko First Nation has been under a water advisory for 16 years, a situation the chief calls unacceptable.

"It's very upsetting. We live in Canada but on reserve it feels like Third World conditions," said Nazko Chief Stuart Alec. "Drinking, bathing — it's pretty appalling these conditions exist in this country."

Even though $3.5 million went into fixing the system a couple of years ago, the water advisory persists. Alec blames the way the project was executed for its failure.

"They took the easy route. They sent money but did not put someone on the ground," he said.

"They filtered out money so it would look like they were dealing with the issue, but they needed a project manager on the ground to oversee the project and report to the band and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. None of that happened."

Alec said the water system has been plagued with problems from the beginning, ranging from bad connections to lack of training.

Part-time water tech at Pinaymootang 

In Manitoba, Pinaymootang First Nation has been under a water advisory for the last 859 days — an order that affects just the arena and gas bar. But residents distrust the quality of the tap water in their own homes so much that most pick up bottles of drinking water from the treatment plant. 

Derrick Gould, a band councillor with the Pinaymootang First Nation in Manitoba, describes years of brown baths, bottled water and boiling water in kettles when the treated water runs out. (CBC)
"If this was in a town or municipality somewhere else, the news would be all over this," said Derrick Gould, an outgoing band councillor from Pinaymootang​.

Gould described years of brown baths, bottled water and boiling kettles when the treated water runs out. He said the harsh chlorine that's used to kill bacteria has also ruined people's laundry.

"I know that our water plant facility is too small for the size of our community," said Gwen Traverse, the First Nation's health director.

The budget to run the water treatment plant is small, too. One part-time employee who is paid $15,000 a year is taking care of the water in the community of 1,200 people. But it takes more than part-time hours to get the job done.

"She's doing it on her own time and dime," said Traverse. "I'm glad that she's doing it for her own community, but it makes me feel bad."

A drinking water advisory can affect as little as one building. It does not always represent a problem with the entire water system in the community, according to the Health Canada website.

Health Canada declined an interview request and said it had no comment on the data but a spokesperson said the department "knows about the problem that is both serious and complex".

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada declined an interview. In an emailed statement, AANDC said it provided $54,000 to Nazko for new arsenic filters. The work is expected to be completed by the end of this month.

Search water advisories across Canada

With files from Holly Moore, Duncan McCue and Tiar Wilson


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