First Nations’ Water

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

As we enter 2021, Canada and Indigenous communities should finally commit to making the systemic reforms that will ensure First Nations have drinking water standards that are the same as the rest of the country. 

For starters, Indigenous communities ought to experiment with more regional water authority agreements to deliver safe drinking water for many reserves. 

In late 2020, Indigenous Services Canada signed agreements with Atlantic region First Nations communities to create a utility that would oversee drinking water and wastewater systems for 15 Indigenous communities across the region. This also includes a financial commitment for training of staff and capacity building. The agreement takes the issue of water delivery away from federal oversight and transfers it to a First Nation authority. This respects the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that political decision-making should be as localized as possible, and removed from centralized authority. For too many matters affecting Indigenous communities, decision-making occurs at the federal level. Indigenous communities have long protested that authority over their communities and governance was at the level farthest removed from their everyday lives. 

This sort of agreement should be a model for other regions in Canada to follow. It addresses the fact that the long-standing drinking water issue is both a governance and a capacity issue. It is not just about sending more money to broken systems. If that is the case, the federal government will always be playing catch-up. 

This comes after an admission in late October 2020 by the federal government that it might not be able to make its commitment to end boil-water advisories on First Nations by March 2021. It was obviously a very laudable goal, but was it realistic? The government should be bolder on reform commitments and less so on grandiose promises it cannot fulfil. 

The government had stated that since 2015 it had lifted 95 boil-water advisories across Canada. Indigenous Services Canada says that 61 advisories remain in place. Also, communities that had eliminated long-term boil advisories were placed on short-term advisories shortly after. 

However, it is reasonable for the government to mention that travel restrictions in place in 2020 due to COVID-19 created complications for improving water infrastructure. 

It was long recognized that the regulatory gap was central to the problems of delivering safe drinking water to First Nations. Management, oversight, and quality standards were diffused and spread out over separate federal agencies, which provided funding, policy, and regulatory oversight over reserve-based water systems. 

Separate federal agencies provide funding, policy, and regulatory oversight (Indigenous Services Canada) for water and wastewater systems on reserves. In terms of authority, the Indian Act delegates power to First Nations chiefs and councils to manage day-to-day water systems on reserves, which includes water quality testing, the issuing of drinking water advisories, and planning and developing infrastructure. The gap was that provincial laws that protected water safety did not apply on reserves. 

The previous government attempted to fix this regulatory gap by passing legislation that provided comprehensive standards. However, First Nations felt that although the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act created a water governance structure and regulations, it was passed without much meaningful input from Indigenous communities and did not come with commitments on capacity building. Since the act’s passage, the government has put the regulations on hold as it develops more First Nations-led processes.

It is debatable that the legislation was enacted without input, but nevertheless, Indigenous communities should work with Ottawa on negotiating more agreements similar to the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA). All parties will also be able to observe how the authority acts in real-time and corrects any problems. 

The hope is that the AFNWA will be completely autonomous by spring 2022. However, it must be acknowledged that the pandemic environment may present some challenges. 

Once the transfer of authority is complete, the Indigenous water authority will assume liability for water and wastewater systems for households and businesses on reserves all over the region, representing about 60 percent of on-reserve First Nations in the region.

2021 should be the year that Ottawa finally works with Indigenous communities to deliver First Nations-led governance and capacity reforms that will allow all First Nations to have reliable access to safe drinking water. However, it will take time to perfect. It should not be yet another year when the government must adjust its targets and disappoint reserve residents once more. 


Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.  

Photo by Nicole Tarasuk on Unsplash.