First Nations find out how to bring down the law on bad water

The Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba have been examining the issue of clean water and adequate sanitation in First Nations across the country. On Thursday, the centre will host twenty policy makers, lawyers, and experts.

Lawyers and policy experts gather today with First Nations people at Centre for Human Rights Research

Three and a half year-old Hailey Sakanee takes a sip of water. Her community, Neskantaga First Nation, has been under a water advisory for two decades. (CBC)

Lawyers and policy experts are gathering today with First Nations people at the University of Manitoba's Centre for Human Rights Research for a workshop that tackles ways to bring the power of the law to the persistent issues of bad water on reserves.

The Centre's director Karen Busby, and Métis lawyer Aimée Craft, received a public grant four years ago to look at finding solutions to best address the problems.

"We had promised in the grant that our work would be really practical, you know, real things that communities could do," said Busby.

"At least half of the people coming to the workshop are Indigenous Peoples so we [will] really try to make sure that we draw on indigenous expertise."

A CBC News investigation last month revealed 20 reserves across the country have had a drinking water advisory longer than 10 years. The numbers show that 400 out of 618 First Nations in the country had some kind of water problem between 2004 and 2014. 

The group will examine the different water issues within First Nations communities and see which approach would work best.

One of the lawyers in attendance today is Rosanne Kyle,who helped four Alberta First Nations file a court action asking  Federal Court to force Ottawa to upgrade their water systems, provide continuing support to keep them operating safely and to refund money the bands say the government has saved over the years by not doing so.

In other cases,a community's needs is better met by participating in a universal review process in international law.

"It's called universal periodic review, where Canada is asked to appear before a United Nations body to answer a bunch of questions on its human rights records," Busby said.

"First Nations have appeared before those bodies to complain about water in those communities. And we will talk about whether or not that was an effective strategy."

Busby says there are other routes a First Nation could take: make a claim in court for a constitutional law or international law violation or filing a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

"So what we really hope comes out of this is we can say, a community that has these qualities would be the best one to file a claim against the federal government for these reasons. And this is the resources we need to do it."


Tiar Wilson was raised in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Manitoba. She's reported for APTN National News, CBC Winnipeg, and CBC North. Tiar is also involved with CBC's database of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and continues to share the stories of these women, their families and communities. She's currently reporting for CBC Aboriginal. @yourpaltiar.

With files from CBC Calgary