Indigenous Access to Water

From UBC Wiki

Environmental Racism occurs in various parts of Canada. Most notably, on Indigenous reserves, where communities are 90x more likely to lack access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation in comparison to the rest of the Canadian population.


Various studies conducted in the 1970-80s began to link the connection between harmful environments and the communities in close proximity to them. However, the idea of environmental racism first made headlines in 1982 when protests erupted in North Carolina due to the states plan to dump "120 million pounds of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the county with the highest proportion of African Americans."[1]

Of course, this was a concept that "middle-class white environmentalists had failed to consider, i.e., that people of color and poor communities were facing ecological risks far greater than they."[1]


Environmental Racism is referred to as the disproportionate levels of exposure to harmful toxins and environments experienced by marginalized groups (primarily low-income populations and racial minorities).

Furthermore, it can be elaborated to include “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.”[1]

The Right to Water

Despite calls for its recognition in the late 20th century, water, until recently, was never regarded as a basic living need. Despite various campaigns by both the United Nations and World Heath Organization in the 1980s-90s recognizing the importance of water, it was never explicitly mentioned or prioritized in declarations. It wasn’t until 2010 that the UN officially declared that there was in fact a human right to safe drinking water, in addition to adequate sanitation. This right was declared by both the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, which meant that it was now part of “binding international law.”[2]

However, despite the majority of nations around the globe recognizing the right to water, Canada has never publicly acknowledged it.

Canada has never explicitly recognized the human right to water.

Indigenous Reserve Water Access

Generally, Canadian laws attempt to secure safe drinking to all water systems, except those systems that are so small that they only are used by a small number of buildings or residents. There is one other exception to this rule, and that is that “provincial laws governing drinking water do not apply to reserves, because of the federal government's constitutional responsibility for ‘Indians, and lands reserved for Indians.'"[3]

However, there is no actual Federal legislation that includes Indigenous reserves and their access to potable water and sanitation.

Simply, this means that “all populations under federal jurisdiction have their drinking water protected by law, except for on-reserve First Nations people."[3]

As of 2008, 100% of urban residents and 99% of rural residents have access to improved drinking water and sanitation. The rural communities that comprise the 1% that do not, are predominantly Indigenous reserves.[3]

The lack of access to safe drinking water that Indigenous communities face have several adverse health, social, and economic effects. “Residents of these communities experience higher rates of waterborne disease and increased risks of diseases such as H1N1 (the swine flu).”[3]

Furthermore, the lack of access to safe drinking water may “contribute to the significantly higher rates of substance abuse and suicide experienced by some of these communities."[3]

These harsh truths have all been recognized by the Canadian Federal government. "The federal government admits that the incidence of waterborne diseases is several times higher in First Nations communities, than in the general population, in part because of the inadequate or non-existent water treatment systems."[3]

Current Indigenous Water Facts

67 long-term drinking water advisories remain on Indigenous reserves throughout Canada in 2017.

40 of those advisories are over a decade old.

32 long-term advisories have been resolved since Trudeau's Liberals came into power, however, 22 have been added.

The projection for 2018 is that only 37 will remain by the end of the year.[4]

Examples of Impacts

Pikangikum, Ontario:

A community of 2,300, where 95% of homes lack running water and indoor plumbing. Residents are forced to collect water from a nearby lake located downstream from a sewage plant, leading to constant contamination.

Negative impacts of the water contamination include, and are not limited to, "gastrointestinal infections, skin infections, lice infestations, and urinary tract infections and eye/ear infections." Furthermore, "Pikangikum became notorious in 2000 when media reports described it as having the highest suicide rate in the world' with people killing themselves at thirty-six times the Canadian average."[3]

Little Buffalo, Alberta:

A community of approximately 225 people with no running water. "Local water sources are contaminated and unsafe to drink, houses lack indoor plumbing, and residents are forced to drive an hour each way to and from Peace River to buy bottled water."[3]

"In 1984, following unsuccessful negotiations and court actions, the Lubicon filed a complaint with the UN. In 1990, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Canada was violating the basic human rights of the Lubicon First Nation. Twenty years later, despite repeated criticism from the UN, the problems have not been addressed."[3]

The Future

The current Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recognized that Indigenous communities lack adequate access to water and sanitation, and thus the Liberals have "pledged to eradicate all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities by March 2021."[4]

The 2016 budget stated that $1.8 billion would be allocated over five years to "fix and maintain the on-reserve water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as training water system operators. Another $141.7 million over five years is going into Health Canada’s coffers to improve the monitoring and testing of drinking water on reserves."[4]

However, a 2017 report by the Parliament Budgetary Office stated that the actual costs to complete the project would be upwards of $3.2 billion. This means that unless more funding is allocated, almost half the Indigenous communities in need of proper water management systems, will not receive them.

Evidence of Environmental Racism

Various Indigenous reserves across Canada lack adequate access to potable water and sanitation services. This is a concrete example of environmental racism here in Canada. It is a fact that no other community in Canada experiences these horrifying water related issues, and the disproportionate level in which these communities suffer is unacceptable. The impacts of contamination and pollutants as a result of the unsafe drinking water and sanitation services are not only harming the current residents, but will likely effect future generations as well. Attention must be focussed on this act of environmental racism and immediate actions must be taken to solve them.

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Mohai, Paul; Pellow, David; Roberts, J. Timmons (2009). "Environmental Justice". Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 34: 405–430 – via Annual Reviews.
  2. "The Human Right to Water and Sanitation". United Nations. June 28, 2010. |first= missing |last= (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Boyd, David R. (2011). "No taps, no toilets: First Nations and the constitutional right to water in Canada". McGill Law Journal. 57 – via Legal Trac.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Aiello, Rachel (December 28, 2017). "Can PM Trudeau keep drinkable water promise to First Nations?". CTV News.