Deplorable water and sewage systems on many First Nations reserves are a real concern. This situation is exceptionally tragic when one considers that more than 90 percent of First Nations communities are located near or directly beside bodies of water.
But what is also tragic is how we are often only given doom and gloom scenarios when it comes to the condition of water on many First Nations.
In July 2014, the United Nations released a report looking at the condition of indigenous peoples in Canada. One aspect of the report looked at the quality of water and water systems on First Nations reserves. Drawing upon a June 2011 report by the Auditor General of Canada, the report concluded that, “more than half of the water systems pose a medium or high health risk to their users.”
However, this observation does not give a full picture of the water quality situation on reserves today. Significant resources have recently been invested in First Nations water systems. Between 2006 and 2014, the Government of Canada invested approximately $3 billion to support First Nations communities in managing their water and wastewater infrastructure. Meanwhile, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) apportioned $159.4 million in capital investments for water and wastewater projects. Additionally, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was introduced in 2013 to regulate drinking water and wastewater treatment in First Nations communities.
Some progress has been made over the last couple years on the quality of reserve water systems by way of these allocated funds. This year AANDC published its third Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Investment Report, which explores the quality of water and wastewater facilities and investments on First Nations reserves.
AADNC evaluates the quality of water systems using a 3-point risk scale. A low risk level means that a system has no or minor deficiencies, a medium risk level denotes that a system has some deficiencies, while a high risk level indicates that a system has major deficiencies. The goal is for all First Nations water systems to move down the ranks and for all to eventually have a low risk level.
AANDC’s report shows that 27 percent of First Nation water systems had a high risk level in 2011-2012, which was brought down to 19 percent by 2012-2013. Meanwhile, the number of systems at a medium risk level rose from 35 percent to 43 percent, while the number of low risk level systems rose as well, from 34 percent to 38 percent.
As a whole, this data shows that while a majority of systems remained at the same risk level (92 remained at a high risk level, while 198 and 194 remained with a medium and low risk level, respectively), a good number of systems saw improvements. 64 systems that had a high risk rating improved to a medium risk rating, while 26 high risk systems and 35 medium risk systems moved down to a low risk rating. It is important to note that 29 systems with a low rating fell to a medium risk level, while 5 low and 16 medium risk level systems dropped to a high risk level, for a net improvement to 75 systems.
Moreover, the water quality issue in Canada is not predicated on a divide between First Nations and the rest of Canada, but rather, on a rural-urban divide.
The quality of water on First Nations reserves is but one component of a broader problem that finds small and remote rural communities faced with a lower quality of water compared to urban communities. The quality of groundwater, sources of contamination, and less advanced or no treatment systems are the most common culprits responsible for lower water quality in rural communities.
That being said, more action can still be taken. John Graham, then with the Institute for Governance, has argued that First Nations need to work much closer with neighbouring communities on water. First Nations communities, he said, should not become “isolated islands” dotted across the province and should allow themselves access to the certification organizations available to their neighbours. These communities ought to consider contracting with neighbouring communities to provide water for them.
If AANDC continues on its current investment path, First Nations will see their water systems receive lower risk scores in due time, but a coordination model between rural and First Nations communities could potentially see these improvements happen faster and at a lower cost, all the while giving them what they want: some degree of control and autonomy.