Water a Risky Business

Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

Water is still a major issue on many First Nations across Canada, but should Manitoba bands be overly concerned?

Just recently, Tsal'alh First Nation, a B.C.-based band, announced they are banning the sale of bottled water in their community. The move is designed to raise awareness about the need for safe drinking water on First Nations communities.

The community will now be the first Indigenous "Blue Community." For some background, the Blue Communities Project is a joint project between the Council of Canadians and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) that focuses on protecting water sources.

Without a doubt, Indigenous communities should be concerned about their drinking water. As of November 2014, there were 135 drinking water advisories across 91 First Nations in Canada.

For Manitoba, however, there were seven communities on that list: Fox Lake, God's Lake, two sources in Lake Manitoba, Pauingassi, Pinaymootang, and Wuskwi Sipihk.

While certainly not a call for complacency and with deference to those communities dealing with water issues, this is good news in the grand scheme.

Manitoba certainly has some challenges. One CBC news report said that 6% of homes on reserves in Manitoba have no water service at all.

While those are serious problems, what does the data for most Manitoba bands show?

Awhile ago, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy collected data that looked at water quality for First Nations across Canada as part of our Aboriginal Governance Index.

The data might be dated a little now, but it shows that Manitoba is a mixed bag when it comes to First Nations water quality. Given recent investments from Ottawa in First Nation water infrastructure, things may well have improved since this data was collected.

In total, only 14 Manitoba First Nations were listed as high risk or low quality. These are the communities that are of significant concern.

High Risk, meaning that the system has major deficiencies, which pose a high risk to the quality of water. These deficiencies may lead to potential health and safety or environmental concerns. They could also result in water quality advisories against drinking the water. Once systems are classified under this category, regions and First Nations must take immediate corrective action to minimize or eliminate deficiencies.

Most Manitoba First Nations, it seems, were scattered around the middle. About 26 bands were listed as Medium Risk (medium quality).

Medium Risk, meaning that the system has deficiencies, which pose a medium risk to the quality of water and to human health. These systems do not generally require immediate action, but the deficiencies should be corrected to avoid future problems.

The good news was that 18 Manitoba First Nations were listed as Low risk (High quality).

Low Risk, meaning that the system operates with minor deficiencies and meets the water quality parameters that are specified by the appropriate Canadian Guidelines for drinking water.

For five communities in Manitoba, there was no data.

So while there is plenty of work to be done in bringing down the number of high risk communities, Manitoba Indigenous communities can rest assured that most communities are still in the middle.

So really the results are mixed. While there is some reason to celebrate, there are certainly areas of concern.

This op ed was originally published by The Winnipeg Sun on Friday, January 16, 2015: http://www.winnipegsun.com/2015/01/16/water-a-risky-business