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Drinking water advisories hit more than half of Manitoba First Nations

More than half of Manitoba's 63 First Nations communities have been under at least one drinking water advisory since 2004, according to information from Health Canada.

32 First Nations have had to rely on water coolers and kettles at least once in last decade

RAW: Pinaymootang Band Councillor Derrick Gould doesn't trust the water in his community anymore 1:38

More than half of Manitoba's 63 First Nations communities have been under at least one drinking water advisory since 2004, a CBC News analysis of Health Canada data has found.

As bad as that may seem, Manitoba's rate of First Nations water advisories is the lowest in Canada.

That's not much comfort for people in the 32 First Nations in this province who have had to rely on water coolers and kettles between 2004 and 2014.  
A CBC News investigation finds two-thirds of First Nations communities in Canada have been under at least one boil water advisory in the last decade. 1:53

Water woes are worse in some communities than in others. God's Lake First Nation tops the list with a total of 3,552 days — nearly a decade — with water problems.

Pinaymootang First Nation comes second with 859 days. Little Grand Rapids and Hollow Water both logged more than 600 days.

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.

(CBC News Graphics)

In Pinaymootang, 220 kilometres north of Winnipeg, outside the water treatment plant there's a constant slow-moving parade of people lugging heavy water coolers out ot their cars. It's not uncommon to see some cars with as many as a dozen massive water jugs.

Pinaymootang band Coun. Derrick Gould relies on bottled water from the community's treatment plant for drinking water and food preparation. People there just don't trust the water from their taps, he said.

Gould bathes in the water that runs from his tap but said he sometimes adds a little bleach to his bath water "just to try and kill whatever is there."

Water coolers replace tap water

Pinaymootang's health director, Gwen Traverse, noticed a big shift when she moved back to the First Nation after living away for several years.

"Growing up, we used to always drink from the tap. And then coming back to the community, I noticed that every house has water coolers," she said.

Pinaymoontang band Coun. Derrick Gould says governments need to increase funding to bring water quality in his community up to par with the rest of Canada.
"I don't know what went wrong with the water, but most of the households utilize water cooler systems."

Traverse said the community needs more resources to police and treat its water.  She said $15,000 isn't enough to run the water testing program, and it's getting harder.

"I find that standards are different even to the next community that's even five, 10 minutes away. Standards are totally different compared to on reserves," said Traverse.

Toxicologist Lalita Bharadwaj, a University of Saskatchewan professor who researches water regulation challenges facing First Nations communities and the impacts those challenges have on health, says more communication and collaboration is needed to improve water on First Nations.

Ambiguity muddies the water

"A good approach would be to collaboratively work together: ­­ First Nations, the federal government, the provincial governments, the municipalities and the agencies," Bharadwaj said.  
B.C. First Nations community can't boil away these impurities. Duncan McCue reports 3:49

"When you have this sort of complex tri­-departmental structure for managing and governing water, you are going to run into issues of communication, overlap of roles and just ambiguity of just what each other's roles are in that delivery of safe drinking water."

Toxicologist Lalita Bharadwaj of the University of Saskatchewan says there are many reasons to issue a boil-water advisory. (CBC)
The roles may be ambiguous, but the numbers aren't. Boil water advisories on First Nations soil across Canada have steadily increased in the last decade.

Bharadwaj said it could be because there is more testing of more water sources, but it could also be "because systems are becoming old and aged and not working properly. It could be because the source water is getting harder to treat.

"It's really hard to say why these numbers are higher, because there's so many reasons why a boil water advisory could be put in place," Bharadwaj added.

Whatever the reason, the Council of Canadians says the increase in advisories is unacceptable.

"The numbers are quite appalling," said Emma Lui, the council's national water campaigner.

"It was quite striking to see that there were a number of communities that had been under a do-not-consume order or a boil-water advisory for close to 20 years, and so it's quite shocking."

Lui says she hopes it prompts commitments and action from the next federal government.

With files from Tiar Wilson, Holly Moore, Joanne Levasseur and Vera-Lynn Kubinec

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