With Unfit Drinking Water, Indigenous Communities in Canada Bear Hardship
NORTH SPIRIT LAKE FIRST NATION, Ontario — There was not enough bottled water to go around. Ida Rae had stashed one overpriced jug in a bedroom that she used sparingly to make her great-granddaughter’s baby formula.
Everyone else in the home that Ms. Rae, 75, shares with five people must drink from the kitchen faucet — even though tap water has sickened locals.
For years, and in some cases decades, Canada has failed to provide safe drinking water to many of its Indigenous communities, including North Spirit Lake, a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario that has been under a boil water advisory nearly continuously since 2001.
Decaying infrastructure at water plants and a lack of trained operators has, on many reserves, rendered the treated water undrinkable. Since 1995, more than 250 First Nations have been affected, according to court records.
As a result, Indigenous people have fallen ill from gastrointestinal infections, respiratory illnesses and severe rashes, with some ending up hospitalized. Boiling water has become a daily inconvenience, and entire communities, already struggling with chronic financial hardship, must rely on shipments of expensive bottled water.
The wait for reliable access to the clean water promised by the Canadian government dates back as far as 1977, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was in office.
With a government investment of 2.7 billion Canadian dollars, or nearly 2 billion U.S. dollars, since 2016, the number of boil water advisories in effect at any given time has fallen considerably, and a 2021 class-action settlement is forcing the government to increase its investment.
But as old advisories are lifted, new ones emerge. Despite Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 election promise to eliminate boil water advisories within five years, they remain on 27 reserves across Canada, each lasting at least a year and nearly half exceeding 10.
Ida Rae keeps bottled water to prepare formula for her great-granddaughter, but the rest of the household has to rely on tap water that is not considered safe to drink.
“We’re the first peoples, original inhabitants of the country, and we cannot get clean drinking water,” said Derek Fox, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an association of 49 First Nations in Ontario, 11 of which are under long-term boil water advisories. “We signed treaties. Our ancestors did everything that they felt was right to ensure that this wouldn’t happen.”
Last year, Canada’s federal court approved a settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by three Indigenous communities accusing the government of breaching its legal obligations to First Nations by failing to guarantee access to sanitary drinking water.
As part of the settlement, the federal government agreed to spend at least 6 billion Canadian dollars over nine years on water infrastructure and operations on hundreds of reserves and pay 1.5 billion dollars in damages to roughly 140,000 Indigenous people for the years they had no reliable access to clean water.
“Working with First Nations and communities to support sustainable access to safe drinking water is at the heart of the federal government’s commitment to Indigenous Peoples,” Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, the federal agency in charge of Indigenous affairs, said in an email.
In the year since the settlement, Canada has spent more than the agreement requires and several First Nations have received new infrastructure, which “represents important progress,” Michael Rosenberg, a lawyer for the First Nations, said in an email. But the government is still a long way from solving the problem.
“We’re at a point where the lack of drinkable water on First Nations stands as a really sharp symbol of the failures of the Canadian state,” said Adele Perry, a history professor and director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.
One challenge to providing safe tap water is recruiting and training qualified plant operators, who tend to be paid significantly less if they work on reserves, making it difficult to retain them, according to an independent government audit last year.
It is one obstacle in a Gordian knot of challenges that have rendered the problem intractable for decades, as underscored by conditions in North Spirit Lake, a close-knit community of roughly 300 people.
The federal government financed the construction of a water treatment plant in North Spirit Lake in 1999 as part of a push to bring the same level of water infrastructure to Indigenous reserves as was available to other Canadians.
But electrical problems caused a chlorine distribution system to fail and a boil water advisory was issued in 2001. After 18 years, the advisory was lifted following the expenditure of close to 1 million Canadian dollars on upgrades to the plant.
It only lasted for five weeks. A leak triggered a new boil water order.
Since the leak was repaired in 2019, the boil water order has remained in place because “the community’s water operators were unable to maintain the necessary monitoring of the water plant and water quality,” Vincent Gauthier, another spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, said in an email.
It does not help that the last time federally funded experts visited the community to train the operators was, according to Mr. Gauthier, nearly three years ago.
“Really shabby” construction has also contributed to the plant’s woes, said Steven Laronde, an Indigenous public works official from the Keewaytinook Okimakanak, a council representing six northern First Nations.
Today, water from the lake is processed and piped from the treatment plant to about 40 homes and government buildings on the reserve, which is encircled by forests of black spruce and jack pine. Most homes were built after the plant was constructed and are not connected to the facility by pipes — which would be very costly to lay — so they get water trucked to them from the plant.
Tom Meekis was making deliveries on a weekday in October, taking the wheel of a Ford F-250 that made a couple of stops before zipping along a pitted dirt road to the water plant for a refill. On winter days, deliveries are sometimes canceled because the refill pipes freeze.
Neskantaga First Nation, a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario, has been under a boil-water advisory since 1995, the longest in Canada, and, despite attempts at repairs, its treatment plant is still not working properly. Residents have gotten sick from the water, said Chief Wayne Moonias of Neskantaga.
“They’ve had so much to bear, and oftentimes, this is what gets overlooked, the human toll,” he said. The reserve is seeking a new water plant from the federal government.
In Shoal Lake 40, a reserve near the border of Manitoba and Ontario, a new water plant built in 2021 ended a 24-year-long boil advisory. The plant’s construction took place after an all-season road was built into the reserve, which had been accessible only by a winter road of frozen waterways and by boat.
Before that, the federal government had offered to make repairs to the reserve’s existing system.
“Canada would constantly propose band aid solutions, to address our community’s water needs on reserve, mainly because these temporary solutions were less expensive,” Vernon Redsky, a former chief of Shoal Lake 40, said in a legal filing as part of the class action launched by Indigenous communities.
A government audit noted that long-term solutions to the lack of safe drinking water, including building new water treatment facilities or performing substantial upgrades to existing water systems, would most likely take many years to achieve.
For now, communities like North Spirit Lake count on mass shipments of plastic water bottles.
On a recent afternoon, a forklift driver removed pallets off a cargo plane as a handful of workers milled about a gravel airfield, preparing to unload the 7,000-pound shipment of food, home goods like mattresses and a refrigerator and water bottles destined for a local store owned by Susan Rae.
Ms. Rae supplies the reserve’s health clinic with its monthly shipment of water, which is mostly financed by the federal government, and also sells bottles at her store — $12 for a four-liter jug that typically costs less than $2 in Toronto.
Ms. Rae said that she does not make any profit off the sales and is troubled by the cost. “I do not like charging that much money for water,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should have to pay that price.”
Some residents like Thomasine Meekis have stopped drinking the tap water altogether.
In 2018, Ms. Meekis, 43, and her daughter Casey, who was 11 at the time, came down with an E. coli infection, a bacterial illness that can be spread through contaminated water. Casey was airlifted to a hospital about an hour away with a fever that spiked to 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit. It took three days for her daughter’s fever to break, Ms. Meekis said.
Today, she and her family drink bottled water when they can afford it and boiled or Brita-filtered water when they cannot. “We even add a drop of bleach in our water when we wash dishes,” Ms. Meekis said.
She said she believed most other Canadians would never tolerate what Indigenous people have been forced to cope with.
“I always tell people, I’ll give you a week, come up to my reserve,” she said. “No special treatment. Just live like the way we live.”