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Slow Boil

The state of drinking water on Canada's reserves
CBC News Online | February 20, 2006

Canada is a developed nation; we generally assume the water we drink is safe and clean.

But for many of the half a million Canadians living on First Nations reserves, access to clean and safe water is a major problem.

A CBC investigation has found that many reserves across the country are struggling to access clean and safe drinking water, despite nearly $2 billion spent by the federal government towards fixing the problem. Some reserves have been under boil water advisories for years and many people are forced to rely on bottled water. In some cases, residents say the water is too dirty to even bathe in.

In 2001, three quarters of the drinking water systems on reserves posed potential health risks. CBC filed access to information requests to obtain water audits from 2001. We compared that data with current information to try to understand what has changed. Our findings? Drinking water in two-thirds of communities remains at risk. Seventy-six First Nations communities are currently under boil water advisories. Sixty-two per cent of water operators aren't properly certified.

Water specialists and advocates say a number of factors contribute to the problem. Sometimes water treatment plants don't meet standards or haven't been upgraded. Water testing may be inconsistent; there is no legislation requiring drinking water quality and safety in First Nations communities to be monitored. Reserves still struggle to train and certify water operators. The latest available data from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada indicates that 62 per cent of First Nations water operators are still not properly certified.

Reserve leaders complain they can't get funding or expertise. But Indian and Northern Affairs is in a tug of war over funding and how best to spend money to ensure the safety of drinking water.

In 2003, the federal government made drinking water safety in First Nations communities a priority and approved an additional $600 million of funding over five years as part of the First Nations Water Management Strategy.

That strategy was supposed to fix many of the problems. But in 2005, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Johanne Gelinas found that when it comes to the safety of drinking water, residents of First Nations communities do not benefit from the same level of protection as people who live off reserves. She also found a profound lack of accounting, standards and monitoring of how Ottawa has spent nearly $2 billion to fix the problem.

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Chronic problems persist and water on two thirds of reserves continues to be "at risk" - Dave Seglins reports:
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Total population of Canada: 31,414,000

Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890


North American Indian:
Métis: 266,020*
Inuit: 51,390*
More than one aboriginal origin: 44,835


People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625

People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260

People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230

(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins

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