Watered down promises do more harm than good

The federal government has an over-promising problem, and it’s doing more harm than good.

On Sunday March 21st, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Canada officially missed its deadline to end all long-term boil water advisories on First Nations reserves across the country. As we mark the 2021 edition of Canada Water Week, 58 long-term boil water advisories remain in effect in 38 First Nations across the country.

This is a shameful state of affairs for a country as wealthy as Canada – and as recent expenditures show, missed human rights deadlines aren't about a lack of funds, but an absence of political will and the prevalence of environmental racism.

For many ‘Canadians’ the idea of a drinking water crisis is at odds with our water-rich, coast-to-coast, rivers-n’-streams identity. It goes against our particular ‘brand’ of statehood, where plentiful resources and access to clean environments seem like rights that would be afforded to all.

Canada is also home to the second largest reserves of fresh water per capita in the world, and most people do have water running clear from their taps, which makes the abundance of freshwater both real and imagined, buffering the Canadian government – and the public – from the harsh water-realities facing many First Nations across the country. Canada is one of two OECD and G8 nations without a legally enforceable national drinking water quality standard, despite such a standard being defined as a ‘best practice’ by the World Health Organization.

Like other instances of environmental racism, on-reserve water crises and boil water advisories don’t just interrupt daily life, they come with major cultural losses, and put rural and underserved Indigenous communities at higher risk of health issues like cancer and gastrointestinal disorders from exposure to toxic chemicals, heavy metals and water-borne illnesses. COVID-19 highlighted unequal health burdens facing underserved communities, and made it clear that access to clean water and hand-washing were vital first steps to reduce community transmission of the virus.

So, why – during the COVID-19 pandemic – has delivering on water promises been seen as less essential than something like, say… building an oil expansion pipeline (that risks further polluting drinking water, will worsen climate change and cost taxpayers billions of dollars)?

When resources for other infrastructure projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline are consistently made available, but the government can’t seem to find the time or money to end boil water advisories – we have to ask: is oil really more essential than water?

Systemic racism

Canada’s forced relocation of Indigenous people to the reserve system that makes up 0.2% of Canada’s land mass created today’s water crisis. On-reserve water systems are continuously polluted, destroyed, or diverted by resource development and extraction projects.

To make environmental racism worse, contentious pipeline projects like Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink put waterways and aquifers at risk of pollution throughout many Indigenous territories. The products that will be in those pipelines – diluted bitumen and fracked gas, respectively – use enormous amounts of water and energy just for extraction. Taken together, it’s no wonder land and water defenders have rallied under the banner ‘Water is Life'. Image credit: Issac Murdoch & Christi Belcourt

 Christi Belcourt - Water is Life In 2016, Human Rights Watch released its Make it Safe report, which found Canada to be in violation of global human rights obligations for not delivering water (a basic human right) or repairing aging water infrastructure systems in Indigenous communities. In the same year, the federal government committed to spending $1.8 billion over five years to permanently end the water crisis on First Nations reserves.

While $1.8 billion over five years ($360 million/year) seems like a lot of money, it is only a fraction of the $4.5 billion that the federal government found quickly (and without public process) to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline system in 2018. Combined with the rising construction costs, Canadians can expect to shell out more than $20 billion for an oil pipeline that will likely become a stranded asset before it is paid off.

The COVID-19 pandemic also lifted the veil on the myth of austerity and exposed the illusory nature of fiat currency. Canada spent more than $240 billion in the first eight months of the pandemic. This was the right thing to do to meet the immediate economic and health crisis caused by COVID-19. Similarly, it is the right thing to do to end all boil water advisories in Canada. The COVID-19 relief brings the drinking water issue into sharp focus: the problem could be solved tomorrow if the political will existed.

Pam Palmater writes:

The question that needs to be asked is what sort of mindset allows this crisis to continue? It cannot be explained by political orientation as both Conservative and Liberal governments have failed to remedy the issue for decades. Perhaps we need to look back at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which found that governments in Canada treat Indigenous peoples as less worthy of basic human rights. Until we confront the racist underpinnings of government laws and policies—like funding policies for water systems on reserves—we will never end the water crisis in First Nations.

Canada’s failure to meet successive deadlines sends a clear message to Indigenous communities that ending the water and human rights crisis simply isn’t a top priority. Additionally, government efforts just aren’t good enough if they don’t come with an acknowledgement of the systemic racism in colonial systems leading to a normalization of chronic underfunding, economic displacement and the heightened health risks/proximity to polluting industries in historically marginalized communities across the country. Continuing work on projects that cost tens of billions in taxpayer dollars, will worsen climate change and pose risks to nearby communities – while criminalizing Indigenous opponents to those very projects – shows how the government continues its colonial cycle of abuse, and makes it ‘ok’ for local water, lands and livelihoods to remain the casualties of economic gain.

Whose recovery is it anyway?

This week is Canada Water Week, and it also marks one year since Canada locked down in preparation for a year of unknowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, we’re all familiar with ‘bubbles,’ ‘social-distancing’ and the vital role that ‘essential work’ plays in our everyday lives. So, what is essential work?

According to the BC government website, "Essential services are those daily services essential to preserving life, health, public safety and basic societal functioning. They are the services British Columbians come to rely on in their daily lives."

The Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, Section 36(c) says: “Parliament and the legislatures, together with the government of Canada and the provincial governments, are committed to … providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians.”

While this section has had mixed results in the courts (for example: CBA legal aid challenge), it is hard to imagine a more essential public service than drinking water, with potable water being as reasonable a quality measure as you could hope.

When the federal government announced that it wouldn’t be able to meet its drinking water deadline, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said that COVID-19 had caused delays for the construction of water projects, taking full responsibility and acknowledging that the crisis remains a "top government priority." However, with hundreds of billions of available government dollars for COVID relief, industry subsidies and projects like Trans Mountain, the $1.1 billion from the Indigenous Community Support Fund (ICSF) and $1.5 billion in new investments for clean drinking water in First Nations come across as a tacked-on afterthought.

Loss of trust

The impacts of the drinking water crisis don’t just impact the environment and physical health. In its report on the children and youth who died by suicide in the Pikangikum First Nation between 2006 and 2008, the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario noted that while the government can count how many water advisories exist, they aren’t able to measure their impacts on spiritual and mental health or on cultural and educational mobility. Yet these factors can cause stamina, endurance, tolerance and resiliency [to be] stretched beyond human limits.”

For water advocates, a cycle of apologies, funding re-assessments and failed deliverables are part of a worrying trend, where Ottawa says one thing, and does something else entirely. And, while construction on risky and expensive projects like Trans Mountain, Coastal GasLink and the Site C dam was able to continue, some community leaders alleged that governments had lost sight of what ‘essential’ actually means. Others voiced their concerns over keeping construction sites and work camps open during the pandemic – something that was likely to contribute to a rise in transmission to communities where elders and knowledge-keepers were already at heightened risk.

After more than 250 members of the Neskantaga First Nation were evacuated to Thunder Bay in October 2020 it became clear that not only had the government failed to deliver on water promises, but that their measure of water insecurity may actually be making things worse. As noted in the Queens University Gazette, focusing on “eliminating long-term on-reserve drinking-water advisories diverts attention from the equally devastating impacts of short-term advisories, lack of running water, as well as the anticipated effects of climate change on drinking water quality.”

In ‘Water is Medicine: Reimagining Water Security through Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Relationships to Treated and Traditional Water Sources in Yukon, Canada,’ researchers found that trust in government to deliver on promises had become so eroded that many First Nations who had dealt with water-related trauma would drink less water than they should, or avoid tap water all together (even if clean water was coming out of their taps).

While Canada does not have a legally binding national drinking water standard, Health Canada has issued overarching Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. The jurisdictional tapestry is no excuse: the federal government has a fiduciary duty for on-reserve issues (meaning the government must do what is in the best interest of the First Nation), but only the provinces and territories have legally enforceable standards that do not apply on reserve.

This discombobulated framework for securing drinking water makes it virtually impossible for communities to demand accountability for the cultural, health-related and economic losses they face. So, when the Indigenous Services Minister shares his regrets, or spends time promoting a new government website as a way to ensure accountability, it comes across as an empty virtual offering lacking urgency. When communities who need target dates and long-term solutions receive more interim measures, it does nothing more than band-aid the crisis and feed into a growing mistrust.

What’s next?

The Auditor General’s latest scathing report repeated what First Nations allege: that negligence and a lack of oversight from government has led to a ‘lowest bidder’ system for contracting work, often leading to flawed or incomplete maintenance work on water treatment facilities, leading to further deterioration.

With no regulatory regime in place, no new deadlines set, and outdated measures for success, Indigenous communities are left with more questions than answers on what will happen next. Canada’s expressions of sympathy, remorse and reconciliatory vows to do better are repeatedly undone when they commit to building other, less essential projects like Trans Mountain. Ottawa’s choices make them appear out of touch, like they’re content to take one step forward on reconciliation or climate change, and then take ten steps back.

For Neskantaga First Nation (who have gone without clean water for over 25 years), or for the Semiahmoo First Nation in South Surrey, who may finally be near the clean water finish line (after having endured a boil water advisory since 2005) bathing in contaminated water, doing daily chores or raising families without clean water are emergencies. And, while COVID-19 has fundamentally altered our view of public health issues (for better or for worse), it has also shone a light on what Ottawa chooses to prioritize in relief and recovery efforts.

From claiming to take action on climate change while building oil pipelines, to the countless failed commitments to Indigenous peoples, Ottawa’s overpromising needs to stop. It's Canada's apparent inability to keep the drinking water crisis in First Nations as a top priority that has us scratching our heads and wondering why oil and gas projects continue to get the go-ahead, but securing a human right with basic infrastructure keeps getting stalled.

Like land acknowledgements, there’s a fine line between what’s meaningful, and what’s performative.

Eugene Kung - Staff Lawyer
Julia Kidder - Communications & Engagement Specialist