Water access 'a disaster' on northern Man. reserves

The CBC's Karen Pauls travelled to a remote Manitoba First Nation where concerns over access to safe water have prompted a campaign in hopes of forcing the federal government to act.
A man draws drinking water from the lake in Garden Hill, Man. The community's former chief is leading a push to improve access to safe water for all First Nations. (CBC)

The postcard looks like the kind of advertisement international aid agencies use to raise money for projects in developing countries.

It features a black-and-white photo of a young boy, his face covered with a rash, his eyes dark and without a sparkle.

"Water is a human right," the bold headline states.

"Do you have running water? I don’t  … and I live in Canada, I need your help," reads the bottom caption.

The card is part of a campaign by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to raise awareness about the lack of safe and clean drinking water on many remote First Nations. Addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it also seeks to embarrass the federal government into doing something about it.

It’s a short walk down a path in the trees to the lake from Adam Keno’s house on the Garden Hill First Nation. It’s a trip his son has to make every other day, so he can chip a hole in the ice and get water.

"The size of this container, there," Keno says, pointing to a plastic carton he uses to scoop the water into two 10-gallon pails.

"I come [get] the water, two pails, four pails to carry. After two days I come back."

About half the homes in the Island Lakes region of northeastern Manitoba are hooked up to water treatment plants in their communities. They get water from taps, the same way most Canadians do.

Some have cisterns and get water delivered every week or two. That's Adam Keno's situation. But they usually run out between deliveries, and then they have to get water from one of the community wells or chip a hole in the ice on the lake.

A third group of people doesn't have cisterns at all. They are forced to haul water into their homes, pail by pail.

Adam Keno, 69, and his family have a water cistern but are forced to get water from the frozen lake when their supply runs out. ((CBC))
It's stories like this that have caught the attention of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The agency is known for its international humanitarian work and helps get clean water to people in Palestine, Honduras, Kenya and Mexico.

"It's very disturbing to think in our country there are people who have to live like this. This is not a situation we think is healthy or normal in our country," says MCC team leader Deborah Martin Koop. Koop visited Island Lakes on a fact-finding mission earlier this month.

One of her stops was the home of 82-year-old Moyer Taylor. He’s a diabetic and requires dialysis every few days. But there’s no running water and no bathroom in his house.

"This is where he does his morning wash, that's his wash basin, that's his water supply," says Grand Chief David Harper. Harper used to be the chief of this community but now represents all northern Manitoba First Nations through Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO).

"How far does a family member have to walk or drive to bring water to the house?" Martin Koop asks.

Harper goes to the front window and points to a hole in the lake. Then he leads Martin Koop past a curtain, to Taylor’s small bedroom.

"That’s the slop pail," Harper says, pointing to a pail covered with a garbage bag and streaks of brown.

"Is this for everyone’s facilities?" Martin Koop asks.

"It’s mostly for him. They have an outhouse. But little kids would use that, especially at night. It’s minus 40, what are you going to do?"

Martin Koop asks if there is any home care available to Taylor — any service that will bring water to him.

Harper says yes, but there are close to 300 homes in Garden Hill alone that require water delivery.

"He’d be prioritized but sometimes at the end of the day … the last choice is to go to the lake."

Funding must be targeted: Harper

Taylor's family gathers about eight litres of clean water per person each day. They'd be given twice that much by international aid agencies, if this were declared a health emergency.

Martin Koop says MCC is here to find out what it can do to help, but says the agency may be limited to advocacy.

"Fundraising might be possible but what we can fundraise as a small organization or the general public is far below what would meet the need. The need is greater than what the general public can respond to," she says.

Moyer Taylor, 82, has no running water or sewer in his Garden Hill home. He's forced to use a slop pail in the corner of his bedroom. ((CBC))
Harper agrees, saying Ottawa has to target money to help people get running water.

"What we’re looking at right now is $33,000 [per] home to retrofit houses like these. $33,000 you get a tub, a sink, a toilet bowl, and a little room where you don't have to share your bedroom with a slop pail. Septic tanks included. 

"These conditions are beyond Third World. No person should live in these conditions, especially in Canada."

Being unable to wash can have much more serious health consequences than diarrhea and skin infections. It’s part of the reason these communities were hit so hard during the H1N1 pandemic two years ago, Harper says.

The Department of Indian Affairs says it has spent $91 million on water and sewer infrastructure since the 1990s in these four communities alone. They’re getting upgrades and new water and sewage trucks.

Bill would die if election called

As of Feb. 28, 116 First Nations communities across Canada were under a drinking water advisory. Health Canada won’t provide a list of them, citing privacy concerns. CBC News has obtained one from Aug. 31, 2010, which sources say is still current.

There are more communities on that list now than in 2006, when a CBC News investigation first looked at this issue, despite the fact that the Department of Indian Affairs will have spent $2.5 billion dollars to improve drinking water access on First Nations by 2013.

Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan says if passed, new federal legislation would ensure there's safe drinking water on all Canadian First Nations. Bill S-11 would develop federal regulations governing the provision of drinking water, water quality standards and the disposal of waste water.

Duncan was too busy do an interview this week. In a statement to CBC News, he referred to testimony he gave at a recent Senate committee hearing.

"In 2011 it is absolutely unacceptable that FN Communities are not protected by the same standards for drinking water as other Canadians. [Assembly of First Nations] National Chief [Shawn] Atleo stated here a few weeks ago that when children and their families are not able to trust the drinking water, there is no safety or security — I agree wholeheartedly with his statement —something must be done to rectify this situation.," Duncan said.

"Members of FN rightly deserve and expect to have the same protection as every other Canadian … I don't think we can keep asking Canadian taxpayers to keep pouring resources into a system that lacks clear enforceable standards."

But Bill S-11 will die if a federal election is called. And aboriginal leaders say more regulations won't help.

Back in Garden Hill, Harper says the proposed legislation won't make any difference for people who don't even have running water.

"Bill S-11 won't help that water hole on the ice, Bill S-11 won't help that toilet standing there. Let's fix homes before we start regulating that toilet house there and that water hole down the lake."

Besides, Harper says, the bill will die if a federal election is called. In the meantime, he's just happy to know the Mennonite Central Committee is taking the issue seriously.

"Somebody has stepped in and not turned a blind eye. Someone is here to listen, that's all we're asking for. There is truth in this call for awareness for water in this region.

"We want the people to know there is a disaster here in northern Manitoba, an hour away from Winnipeg."