What Would It Look Like to Take the First Nations Water Crisis Seriously?

Government after government has spent millions on water-treatment plants. But thousands of households still can't drink from the tap

Overhead shot of a wooded landscape with yellow and orange foliage, surrounded by water and with a network of rivers running throughout.
Image courtesy of Ed Middleton/CBC Licensing

“I really like the water from the tap,” says Walter Oskineegish over the phone from Thunder Bay. “It’s easier than getting water from the lake.”

He notices this because it’s so different from what he grew up with or has at home.

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Oskineegish, forty-seven, is band manager of Nibinamik, an Oji-Cree First Nation in northern Ontario—accessible by plane and, in winter, an ice road. Flying over, the landscape looks shot through with tiger stripes, lakes and rivers created by receding glaciers thousands of years ago. Every week, whether it’s sunny or raining or snowing, Oskineegish has to gather water for his family. He sets out in a boat, either a canoe or an aluminum dinghy with a motor, and stops in the middle of Nibinamik Lake, filling as many as four twenty-litre jugs with lake water for the six family members in his household. They drink it, cook with it, and bathe in it, and because that quantity of water doesn’t last long, they reuse it for cleaning up too. When the lake freezes in the winter, he drives a snowmobile out and drills through the ice to get water.

The water has an earthy taste, Oskineegish says. It is tinted yellow in summer; in winter, the ice makes the water a bit clearer. No one routinely tests the lake water to ensure it is safe, but Oskineegish says it has never made him sick. He trusts the water because there’s no mining or industry upstream, but he boils it and runs it through a Brita-like filter before using it, “to be double sure.”

You might think Oskineegish and his neighbours have to go through all this because Nibinamik doesn’t have any sort of infrastructure to filter and disinfect the water. But that’s not the case: Nibinamik has had a water-treatment plant since 1997.

Most Canadians have heard something about the First Nations water crisis: the outbreaks of rashes and gastrointestinal ailments, the boil-water advisories that go on for years or decades. Far fewer likely realize that much of this is happening in communities that have had water-treatment facilities for years, announced in government press releases and ribbon-cutting ceremonies promising relief that often turns out to be short-lived.

Government after government has committed millions to First Nations water problems, yet they persist. The causes are manifold, the solutions complex and poorly understood, even by the very politicians who promise assistance. And the heart of this crisis is northern Ontario, the region with the most and the longest-lasting boil-water advisories, some dragging on for as many as twenty-five years.

The first time Oskineegish drank water from the tap was in Thunder Bay, when he was in grade nine; like other children from Nibinamik and surrounding communities, he lived there for high school. When Oskineegish arrived, in 1988, he found it scary and unfamiliar. He was also able to shower regularly and drink straight from the tap. “I was sort of confused and puzzled and excited at the same time,” he says, “seeing that these things existed.”

Nearly a decade later, in 1997, his community finished building their very first water-treatment plant and wastewater-treatment facility—one of several systems built in northern Ontario First Nations during this period. The water was drawn from the Winisk River, which flows past the community: it entered an intake pipe, was gravity-fed to a wet well, then travelled through filters and was disinfected with chlorine before ending up in a reservoir where it could be distributed to homes. Nibinamik’s water system pumped water to eighty of the ninety-four log cabins and prefabricated houses in the community, providing 304 of its 357 residents with clean tap water.

These water plants, along with those in many other remote First Nations, were the outcome of a 1977 federal policy commitment to expand infrastructure to meet the same health-and-safety standards that were in place in non–First Nation communities. In 1991, the ministry then known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC—it has since been split into two separate departments) committed that by 2001 it would make First Nations equal to Canadian communities in terms of the safety of their drinking water. In 1995, INAC acknowledged that one in four First Nations had serious problems with their water and promised to fix things by 2004. Over the next eight years, INAC spent $1.9 billion to improve water treatment on First Nations.

Dave Craig has nearly thirty years of experience working in water plants and training water operators in northern Ontario First Nations; he estimates that he has visited dozens of communities during that time. When the Canadian government doled out money to build water-treatment facilities in northern Ontario in the mid-1990s, Craig says, it would have made sense to build the same type of treatment system in all communities, so they could share spare parts and expertise. Instead, he noticed that, in the early days, different water treatment technologies were installed in each community—it seemed to him like the government was using the region as a testing ground. According to Indigenous Services Canada (one of the two new ministries that were formerly INAC), these systems included “slow and rapid sand filtration; chemically assisted conventional filtration; and micro, nano, and ultra filtration.” Craig found that many were poorly planned: he recalls a few plants had their drinking water intake downstream from their sewage treatment facilities. Pilot projects—essentially miniature water plants set up to test various designs—either didn’t exist at all or, where they did, were often not run properly, he says, leading to flaws in the fully constructed plants. (Indigenous Services was unable to share annual assessments of Nibinamik’s water plant with The Walrus; the records and data they were willing to provide only went back to 2002. On-the-ground workers like Craig are, therefore, often the most reliable sources of information about the situation.)

Many of these new plants experienced problems almost from the beginning. Over the years, Craig says, the government hasn’t given communities enough money for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. And there has been high turnover among the water operators, for numerous reasons including low wages, hiring from outside communities, and unstable funding. This isn’t just a staff-management problem: if a water plant doesn’t have an operator, that’s an automatic water advisory for the affected community. To this day, Craig says, some First Nations still have rudimentary systems called “stand pipes,” which pump water with minimal treatment, such as only adding chlorine.

Nibinimak’s water-treatment plant was one of the facilities built during this period, opening in 1997. It stopped functioning soon after; within a few years, the community had already had to set a temporary boil-water advisory. (These advisories are issued whenever there is a known or suspected contamination of the water supply and call for boiling any water that will be used for consumption—including drinking, washing fruits and vegetables, and brushing teeth—for at least one minute. The Canadian government calls water advisories issued for less than a year “short term,” while those lasting a year or more are deemed “long term.”)

A March 2001 on-site inspection by a third party, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), tells a frustrating story. Normally, a basic plant like the one in Nibinamik would have a wet well at a lower elevation than the source water, so water could simply flow in, but Nibinamik’s raw water intake line was higher than the wet well, creating service disruptions when water levels were low. “If the guy has to go and physically pump water into it, there would be some kind of a design flaw,” Craig says. (Craig has never worked in Nibinamik, but a national assessment ten years after OCWA’s inspection found that a design flaw was indeed to blame.)

There were other issues too. The water plant’s back-up diesel generator, which was supposed to kick in if there was a power outage, wasn’t working. There was no pump available for fire protection, and a leaky hydrant disrupted the flow of water to homes. Neither the raw water nor the treated water samples met Health Canada’s guidelines for drinking-water quality. The author of the OCWA’s report was not able to review data on the water source’s biological quality, which refers to bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. (The report mentions twice that the agency would have like to conduct another on-site inspection but was unable to do so.) Physically, the treated water had “high colour, total organic carbon and turbidity,” the report states, referring to its yellowish tint and visible bits of organic matter.

Unlike in Thunder Bay or Toronto, the drinking water in many northern Ontario First Nations does not come from the Great Lakes, where the source water generally appears clear. Craig describes the lakes and rivers across northern Ontario as filled with “tea water”: brown, murky, and loaded with leaves and other organic matter. When water with high organic levels is mixed with chlorine—which is used as a disinfectant in most water-treatment plants, including Nibinamik’s—trihalomethanes (THMs) can form. Experts suspect that THMs are correlated with an increased risk of colorectal cancers. (According to Canadian drinking-water guidelines, the acceptable limit for total THMs is 100 micrograms per litre of water. The 2001 assessment of Nibinamik’s water did not include test results for THMs because the relevant vial was broken in transit.)

In Canada’s cities and towns, day-to-day responsibility for water quality falls under provincial jurisdiction; on reserves, it is a shared responsibility between First Nations and the federal government. There are currently no enforceable regulations applying to drinking water on First Nations. Ontario updated its guidelines for water treatment in the wake of the tragedy that unfolded in Walkerton, in 2000, which saw thousands fall ill and seven die from water contamination. Those updated guidelines now state that surface water—the kind of water supply that Nibinamik uses—requires, at minimum, chemically-assisted filtration plus chlorination. Nibinamik’s facility would not meet these standards, nor is it required to.

Indigenous Services conducts annual inspections of water systems on First Nations and, based on its findings, assigns a risk ranking between 0 and 10. Systems at the low end of the scale (rated 4 and under) are considered to have “minor deficiencies” and “usually meet the water quality parameters”; those deemed medium risk (rated 4.1 to 7) have deficiencies “that should be corrected to avoid future problems.” Systems that rank above 7 are those with “major deficiencies that may, individually or combined, pose a high risk to the quality of water.”

Wesley Bova, manager of technical services for the Matawa First Nations (which Nibinamik is a part of) says he’s “not a fan” of the risk-ranking system: “It’s a very subjective risk analysis that the government uses.” For example, he explains, having a highly certified operator in a very poor plant contributes to a lower risk score even though that scenario poses basic problems for water safety and could easily trigger a boil-water advisory.

In 2001, Nibinamik’s system scored a 7: medium risk, right on the cusp of being high risk. That number foreshadowed a bleak future of drinking water for the community.

The 2001 OCWA report made a list of recommendations to address Nibinamik’s water problems, including investigating the previous boil-water advisory, which had been set soon after the plant opened, to make sure contamination was addressed; investigating the water intake problem; developing a program to regularly sample the water; and implementing a training program to certify the water operator—who was described in the report as having “some training”. (The federal government had launched the Circuit Rider Training Program in 1996 to essentially provide travelling tech support for water operators on First Nations. Craig was among the very first Circuit Riders.)

Between 1995 and 2003, the federal government spent about $1.9 billion to improve water and wastewater infrastructure on First Nations. Despite this investment, in 2003 a national assessment found that 218 of the 740 drinking-water systems on reserves were high risk, and a 2005 audit found that reserve residents still did not have the same level of water protection as Canadian communities. The latter report also emphasized that there were no laws or regulations governing drinking water on First Nations, unlike other communities.

After the 2003 assessment, the federal government promised to “address all of the high-risk systems by the end of March 2008,” approving an additional $600 million over five years under the First Nations Water Management Strategy. In November 2005, under Paul Martin’s Liberals, federal, provincial, and territorial governments, as well as five national Indigenous groups, met in Kelowna, BC, to discuss details of the Kelowna Accord, a pledge to “close the gap” between living standards on First Nations and those of Canadian communities. Under the agreement, which was not legally binding, $1.6 billion would be put toward housing and infrastructure, including $400 million for water facilities. But, only four days later, Parliament was dissolved. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in the election that followed; under his government, the funding promised in the accord was drastically reduced.

Nibinamik had to keep setting water advisories throughout this period: one, in 2003, was lifted in 2004; another, in 2007, was lifted in 2008. And yet another, set in 2009, lasted until 2011.

In 2011, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada published a national assessment of First Nations water systems; it found the design of Nibinamik’s water facilities is what caused it to fail both health and aesthetic water guidelines. It also found that the primary water operator had no certification (despite the previous recommendation that this be done) and that the source water was high risk. The facility’s overall risk rating was 7.5, placing it in the high-risk category. More advisories followed in 2012. A suspected fuel spill in spring 2012 also led to a five-week-long “do not consume” advisory, which is stricter than a boil-water advisory. Finally, in 2013, the community set a long-term boil-water advisory that endures today.

Oskineegish became band manager of Nibinamik in 2005; over the years, he says he received many complaints about the water from the treatment plant due to what residents describe as excessive chlorination. People still bathe and shower in water from the tap. They have reported rashes and sores to Oskineegish, although it’s not clear if these are from the water. Bottled water is available at the community’s general store but quickly sells out, Oskineegish says, leaving no choice but the lake.

Ahead of the federal election in 2015, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised that, if elected, he would ensure all First Nations experiencing drinking water advisories had clean water within five years. He also promised to “reengage” with the Kelowna Accord. After he became prime minister, that commitment shifted: all long-term water advisories on First Nations would end, the federal government said, by March 2021. That meant short-term advisories—those lasting less than a year, like the ones Nibinamik experienced on and off for years—would continue. In 2018, I asked then Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott about this change, and she said the commitment hadn’t shifted, it had instead been “clarified.” She said that, when Trudeau first made his promise, he’d been referring to the problem of long-term advisories. In fact, in 2015, he did not differentiate between short- and long-term advisories.

There’s no doubt that the Liberals have made some progress. When they took office, there were 105 long-term water advisories on First Nations; as of September 2019, there were fifty-six. Though these numbers suggest that the government has cut the problem in half, in terms of the number of people affected, it has actually made a smaller dent: the total number of homes on long-term water advisories has fallen from 5,400 to 3,800 over the past four years, a 30 percent reduction. And all of these statistics obscure the true number of people who don’t have clean water: many homes in First Nations communities were never hooked up to water lines in the first place. Residents either use private wells, which are untested and do not fall under the government commitment, or they have to walk or drive to the nearest water source to fill jugs.

Earlier this year, the government committed up to $6 million for the design and construction of upgrades to Nibinamik’s water plant; it estimates that the community’s water advisory will be lifted by spring 2021, making it one of the last in line. One complication is the difficulty of bringing in equipment and building materials: the cost of flying in materials is prohibitively expensive, and there is no all-season road. The winter road is only available a few weeks a year, and climate change is now threatening all winter roads that First Nations in the region rely on, making them increasingly unreliable. Other communities have received funding for brand new water-treatment plants, which usually cost about $13 million apiece and up to $20 million for larger facilities.

But it also may be the case that political promises on the matter—this talk of advisories ending—is highly misleading. As of October 15, there at least forty-nine short-term drinking-water advisories in effect (that number does not include advisories in BC and within the Saskatchewan Tribunal Council), including many in First Nations that recently came off the long-term advisory list. The government says it has lifted eighty-seven long-term advisories since November 2015, but it has added another thirty-nine long-term advisories in the same period. Communities that have had long-term advisories lifted say their water is still vulnerable, citing issues including low pay for water operators, unreliable contractors, faulty equipment, and a lack of backup power sources.

Isadore Day, a former Ontario Regional Chief from Serpent River First Nation, elicited the clean-water commitment from Trudeau in 2015 by challenging him and the other party leaders to commit to fixing the problem within five years. Four years later, he’s impressed with Trudeau’s progress. “I try to avoid partisan politics on the federal side, but I have to commend the Liberal government for the efforts that they’ve made,” Day says. “Yes, there’s a lot of work to do, but I believe the Liberals deserve a lot of credit for making a good run at this.”

That’s a far cry from thinking the crisis is nearing resolution, though. Day believes the drinking-water issue needs to be debated in this election because he worries a shift in power could knock it down the list of priorities. And, though the Conservatives, Liberals, NDPs, and Greens have all said they remain committed to the issue, Day is concerned that no one is talking about long-term operation and maintenance of all the new infrastructure being built. This isn’t, in other words, just about constructing the plants themselves: like any other basic infrastructure, these systems will need ongoing management, which is hardly the sort of thing politicians like to spend time discussing on the campaign trail.

Autumn Peltier, fifteen, is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island—the largest freshwater island in the world, in Lake Huron. In late September, she went to New York City to address the United Nations Global Landscapes Forum; she explained that her community is not on a water advisory, but she became an activist when she learned that other First Nations didn’t have clean drinking water. “I was confused, as Canada is not a third-world country,” she said, “but here in my country, the Indigenous people live in third-world conditions.” Peltier’s great aunt, she said, had taught her the sacredness of water. “For years and years, our ancestors have passed on oral traditional knowledge that our water is alive and our water has a spirit.”

When I tweeted a clip of Peltier’s speech, Jordan Smith, a volunteer water operator in a tiny BC community, commented that he is a white person who lives in a remote community that is also on a boil water advisory. He raised geographic remoteness and the high cost of building and maintaining infrastructure as factors that limit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

He’s not alone in citing geography as a limiting factor in building water infrastructure. During a press conference on October 5, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh promised to ensure there are no more drinking-water advisories in First Nations; two reporters asked him if he was “writing a blank cheque” for this and other Indigenous issues. Singh, who didn’t elaborate on what his approach to the problem would be, replied: “If Toronto had a drinking-water problem, if Montreal had a drinking-water problem, would you be asking the same question?”

But, even for First Nations like Nibinamik, whose location is an aggravating factor in attaining clean water, remoteness is not the root cause of the water crisis. Many First Nations located a short drive from cities are also under long-term advisories. (Wauzhushk Onigum Nation, to take one example, is ten minutes from downtown Kenora and is under two separate boil-water advisories, one issued in 2012 and the other in 2017.)

Boil-water advisories exist not so much because of distance but as a direct outcome of colonial conquest. Water filtration plants didn’t exist before industrialization took hold—but they weren’t needed, either. As Sean Carleton, history professor at Mount Royal University explains, before colonization began in the sixteenth century, First Nations controlled all of the land in what we now know as Canada. That changed between the 1870s and 1920s, with First Nations leaders signing treaties in exchange for verbal and written promises to share the land, water, and work, nation-to-nation, with Canada. Instead, surveyors marked prime agricultural land for settler development and set aside small portions of less desirable land for Indian Reserves—removing, at the same time, First Nations’ ability to manage their own watersheds. If a source of pollution upstream from reserve land is contaminating source water, for instance, a First Nation does not have the authority to stop it.

Canada passed the Indian Act—a huge, complicated set of laws that oversee relations with First Nations—in 1876, around the same time it began building the railway and signing treaties. The Indian Act deliberately subverts Indigenous authority to the Canadian government, rather than working nation-to-nation, as settlers had once promised. As set out in the Indian Act, the Canadian government holds Band Moneys, which are capital and revenue generated from reserve land, in trust on behalf of First Nations. As Day explains, this means an outside government controls First Nations’ affairs, including their financial resources. Day says this paternalistic structure is the cause of delays and shortages in funding for water infrastructure. He also says the same structure means Canada has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure safe living conditions on First Nations.

Nibinamik has decided to build its new water system to meet the standards Ontario developed after Walkerton—it will have a proper intake line and will chemically filter out THMs—though it is not required to do so, and the $6 million in funding it is receiving may not be enough to cover the costs. In the long run, though, Bova is more concerned that the federal government will not provide enough money to operate and maintain all the new plants being built now throughout their twenty-year life cycles. (The government has promised $605 million in funding over four years.) The new plants being installed now are more complex, he says, so they will require a lot more money to operate. Asked if he believes his community will have clean drinking water by 2021, Oskineegish says, “I’d like to be that positive guy, and I’d like to see it, but I don’t think it will happen.”

To get base federal funding for a water-treatment project, a First Nations community must first fund its own feasibility study, or fund it through provincial programs. Only after they complete this study can they secure funding for a detailed design study and, eventually, move on to construction. The entire process can take five to ten years, with delays arising from changing seasons and governments. Craig first explained this to me over the phone in 2017, as he was in the middle of trying to fix leaks in another First Nation’s new water-treatment plant. The contractor in that case was driving him crazy, he told me, and was later kicked off another reserve because of delays in building another new water-treatment plant. “If it were a municipality, it would be an uproar,” Craig said. “There’s no way people would stand for it.”

Craig has since had to step back from some of his work in water treatment, mostly because of his health but also because of his frustrations with the engineering outfit and contractor that built the plant he was working on when we spoke. As in the old days, he says, the pilot project wasn’t done properly: it was built in a narrow passage where the water is moving, but the permanent water plant was constructed about four kilometres away, on a dead bay with no water flow—a major difference that could lead to problems in the future.

Working inside the system for decades, he says, “you feel like such a small pebble on the beach that you can’t do anything. It becomes so frustrating—it breaks your heart.” He watched the English-language election debate, the night of October 7, hoping to see the water crisis addressed. “But the section on [Indigenous] issues, people were more involved in slinging dirt at the other guy. There were no real answers given.”

His questions for everyone involved, from First Nations governance to Indigenous Services to elected leaders and voters: “Are we being diligent? Are we doing what we should be doing? Are we doing what’s really needed? Or are we just making a show?”

Hilary Beaumont
Hilary Beaumont (@hilarybeaumont) is a freelance investigative journalist who has reported from the US, Mexico, and Canada.