Indigenous Americans Have Been Living Flint’s Nightmare for Decades

A new report documents the Canadian government’s failure to regulate safe water for First Nations communities.
(Photo: Camille Harrington/Flickr)
Jun 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Cristal Swain has five daughters, ranging in age from three to 13. For the girls’ entire lives, the family, which is part of the Grassy Narrows First Nations community in Ontario, Canada, has lived without access to clean water.

“Our whole life we have been under a boil-water advisory,” Hazel Sneaky, Swain’s oldest daughter, told Human Rights Watch. “Our fountains at the school are all covered up because we can’t drink from them.”

The Swain family’s predicament is common among Canada’s indigenous families, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday. In spite of living in one of the world’s most water-rich regions, First Nations people living on reserves depend on water sources that are not regulated or protected by Canada’s government. That means the available water is often contaminated, inaccessible, and degraded, leaving communities at risk of cancer, skin infections, and gastrointestinal disorders.

“It’s often indigenous groups and communities of color that miss out on access to safe drinking water, even in countries that have a large amount of natural resources,” Amanda Klasing, the report’s author, told TakePart. “First Nations communities not only lack the same level of access to clean water but also the basic legal infrastructure to ensure that they have safe drinking water on the reserve.”

First Nations reserves in Canada do not have the level of sovereignty and control over governance that Native American reservations in the U.S. do, leaving the Canadian government responsible for the regulatory gap that has inhibited potable water access in these communities, according to Klasing. Recognizing that responsibility, candidate Justin Trudeau made a campaign promise to end boil-water advisories in First Nations communities within five years of being elected prime minister. His administration has since earmarked $1.8 million to address water access on indigenous reserves.

Now, advocates like Klasing are waiting for that plan to be put into action—and to see whether indigenous stakeholders will be involved in the process. “Funding commitments by the government in the past haven’t led to progress or change in the communities,” said Klasing.

The tainted water, in which contaminants such as E. coli, coliform, uranium, and cancer-causing disinfectant byproducts have been found, has led to negative health consequences for many of the households surveyed by Human Rights Watch. The lack of access to drinkable water recalls that experienced by members of the Navajo Nation in the U.S. throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Contaminated wells and groundwater in this region, along with limited resources necessary to build infrastructure to bring safer water from the San Juan and Colorado rivers to the Navajo people, has left many unable to access water that runs through their lands.

The contamination also echoes the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents were exposed to lead-contaminated water after the state government switched the city’s main water supply to save money. The corrosive water from the Flint River caused lead in the city’s service lines to leech into the water supply. Problematic water sources such as wells and poorly maintained household septic systems, along with degraded water quality caused by high levels of disinfectant products, can also be seen in First Nations communities, according to Klasing. It’s a reminder that the government needs to invest in infrastructure while creating a new regulatory framework to protect indigenous Canadians.

“As much as governments need to pour into ensuring there are treatment facilities, if we don’t address the problems at the source, it will become more expensive and difficult over time to ensure communities have safe drinking water,” said Klasing.