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‘Third World conditions’: Many of Canada’s indigenous people can’t drink the water at home

Empty 20-liter water bottles sit outside a home to be picked up and refilled in 2016 in Lake Shoal, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 1997.
Empty 20-liter water bottles sit outside a home to be picked up and refilled in 2016 in Lake Shoal, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 1997. (John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP)

TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY, Ontario — The picturesque villages on the shores of the Bay of Quinte, halfway between Ottawa and Toronto, have long drawn retirees from the cities. The towns are home to sandy beaches, art galleries, golf courses, wineries and, crucially, clean drinking water. None of the visitors has worried about whether the water is safe to drink.

But that’s not the case for the nearly 2,200 indigenous people about 10 miles away on the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nations reserve. Six of its water systems are under long-term drinking-water advisories. Four of the advisories have been in place since 2008.

The safety of public water systems on reserves is the responsibility of Canada’s federal government. In 2015, Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to end all long-term drinking-water advisories — those longer than 12 months — on reserves by March 2021.

But the commitment, part of a raft of pledges designed to bring about reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous people, has not been easy to address, and chiefs and others worry that a combination of red tape, undertrained operators at water treatment plants and insufficient funding means that progress will be sporadic.

To avoid drinking water contaminated with blue algae or bacteria such as E. coli, residents of Ontario’s third-largest First Nations reserve boil water, pay for it to be delivered to them by truck, or haul jugs to and from the reserve’s two fill-up stations.

“These are Third World conditions,” said Donald Maracle, the chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, who has seen residents develop skin rashes and gastrointestinal illnesses from showering or drinking the water.

The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte are not alone. Despite the fact that Canada has the world’s third-largest supply of fresh water, water on indigenous reserves has for decades been contaminated with various chemicals or bacteria, tough to access or at risk because of broken-down water systems that can take years to fix.

The reasons for the advisories — and their solutions — vary depending on the community, its geography and its water source.

Take Grassy Narrows, a reserve in northern Ontario. Since 2013, its 640 residents have been under a strict do-not-consume order because its water is contaminated with mercury — something its residents long suspected as many suffered the telltale symptoms of mercury poisoning over decades.

In Neskantaga, a remote fly-in reserve also in northern Ontario, residents have been boiling water for 23 years after a water treatment plant that was built in 1993 broke down. The government has only now started completing the repairs, which would help end the country’s longest drinking-water advisory. In the meantime, bottles of water are flown in on cargo planes each week and rationed out to the nearly 240 residents.

Since becoming prime minister, Trudeau has earmarked nearly $2 billion to make good on his promise, but addressing the crisis hasn’t been easy. Of the 105 long-term drinking-water advisories in place in November 2015, 71 have been lifted. But because 35 have been added, a total of 69 remain. And there is always a risk that a system will slip back on the list or that short-term drinking-water advisories will become long-term ones. There is one advisory nearing the 12-month mark.

Maracle’s community has seen progress. In 2016, after four years of negotiations with the federal government, his reserve got something that many don’t have: a $31 million state-of-the-art water treatment plant, which provides clean water to 68 homes and various community facilities.

But the treatment plant’s water line does not extend to all the homes on the reserve, and dwindling groundwater is making water scarcity a major issue for homes reliant on wells, leaving hundreds of homes without clean drinking water. An extension of the water line and the construction of a water tower are planned, but it could take many years until those projects are completed, Maracle said.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that the federal government requires band councils on reserves to cut through substantial red tape before work on any of the solutions begins. The process of submitting and approving feasibility studies, options analyses and design plans can last years, meaning drinking-water advisories inevitably drag on in the meantime.

“All we do with these studies is frustrate the process and add to the cost,” Maracle said.

Those same bureaucratic hurdles must be cleared if existing water treatment systems need upgrades or repairs, which even relatively new ones often do. A report from Human Rights Watch in 2016 found that of the dozens of drinking-water advisories in place on Ontario’s reserves, almost 60 were for systems less than 25 years old, and 12 were for systems less than 15 years old.

“I know there’s a political will from the prime minister down. But if the bureaucracy doesn’t change, nothing will change,” said Erwin Redsky, the chief of Shoal Lake 40, an isolated indigenous reserve of nearly 290 people in Manitoba. It has been under a boil-water advisory since 1997, after it was literally cut off from the mainland and turned into a man-made island to make way for an aqueduct that supplies clean drinking water to the city of Winnipeg.

Making matters worse, reserves often struggle to retain water treatment plant operators, who are trained by Health Canada and responsible for testing the water. Many are lured to big cities by higher-paying jobs or are in­adequately trained, according to a report from the David Suzuki Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental issues.

Questions also have been raised by Canada’s independent budget watchdog and others about whether enough resources have been set aside to fulfill Trudeau’s promise. In a 2017 report, it said that the government is spending only 50 to 70 percent of what it would cost to eliminate drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves.

Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott said she disputes the watchdog’s conclusion because “some of the areas that he was looking at were areas where we may categorize the spending differently.” She added that the department will “continue to make investments as needed” and will not let a “lack of resources get in the way of getting this job done.”

Chad Westmacott, the senior director of strategic water management at Indigenous Services Canada, said the department is supporting programs to help better train, retain and reward water treatment operators to keep them from seeking employment elsewhere.

And while the department has made some adjustments to help eliminate red tape, he said that there is “a certain level of due diligence that is required because we have to recognize that the funding is Canadian taxpayer money and the government of Canada has a responsibility to Canadian taxpayers to make sure that money is used appropriately.”

Dawn Martin-Hill, a resident of southern Ontario’s Six Nations reserve and an anthropology professor at McMaster University, said that even if the government makes good on its promise, there is a bigger problem that will take longer to fix. A $41 million water treatment plant was built to serve part of the Six Nations reserve in 2014, she explained, but residents are afraid to drink from it because they don’t trust that the water is clean.

“Sometimes it was, ‘Don’t cook with it, don’t even touch it.’ Other times it was, ‘You can cook with it, but you can’t drink it,’ ” she said. “It does something to your psyche when you’re told not to drink your water for so many years.”

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