Report Shows Drinking Water Issues Still Disproportionately Affect Indigenous Communities

Drinking water: A woman holds out a glass of water against a blurred background
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

A water contamination incident from over 20 years ago inspired a deep dive into drinking water protection in Ontario, but a new report shows that even decades later, Indigenous communities are still facing barriers when it comes to accessing safe drinking water.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) released an update on the status of safe drinking water in Ontario on Sept. 23. The report examines the progress on 121 recommendations made by Justice Dennis R. O’Connor after contamination led to widespread illness and seven deaths in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000. The report states that the overall assessment reflects “continued success in drinking water protection,” but it also recognizes that many of the remaining problems disproportionately impact Indigenous communities.

“While about 80 percent of the provincial population receives their drinking water from municipal water systems, which are closely regulated, other parts of the population—mainly small and remote communities, Indigenous communities, and those who obtain their water from private wells—do not receive these protections,” said the report. “This bifurcated approach is inequitable, unacceptable, and endangers the health of excluded populations.”

The Walkerton Inquiry

In Walkerton, contaminated drinking water caused the death of seven people and made about 2,300 more people sick. The incident was caused by manure run-off from a farm, which contaminated the water with E. coli. 

The operators of Walkerton’s water system did not detect the contamination, and there wasn’t enough chlorine in the system to treat it. Those factors were just the start of the systemic failures that led to the outbreak, so after investigating, Justice O’Connor put out a report outlining recommendations intended to ensure the availability of safe drinking water in all communities across the province. 

Of the 121 recommendations, 65 are considered complete, 29 need improvement and five are incomplete. Three of the recommendations are no longer applicable while 19 others remain in limbo due to the lack of publicly available information or the need for further investigation.

The Impact on Indigenous Communities

Because provincial standards for drinking water cannot be enforced on reserves, Justice O’Connor made three recommendations for the federal government to work with First Nations communities in creating a plan. All three of the recommendations are considered incomplete.

In an attempt to address these longstanding issues, the federal government enacted the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (SDWFNA) in 2013, but it was repealed earlier this year after continual pushback. 

“​​The Chiefs of Ontario in particular found there was a lack of adequate consultation and resources to identify the potential impacts of legislation,” said the report. “The SDWFNA has been widely criticized for absolving the federal government of all responsibility for providing safe drinking water in communities—placing this burden on First Nation Chiefs instead.”

The Government of Canada settled a class action lawsuit over access to safe drinking water in First Nations communities in December of last year. As part of the settlement, the government agreed to pay $1.5 billion in compensation for people deprived of clean drinking water. It also agreed to create a $400 million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund and commit at least $6 million to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves.

As of Sept. 15, there are still 32 long-term water drinking advisories in 28 Indigenous communities across Canada. Two of those communities, Chippewas of Nawash First Nation and Chippewas of Georgina Island, aren’t far from Muskoka and continue to have boil advisories in place.

Water In Wahta 

Wahta Mohawks First Nation is one of three Indigenous communities in Muskoka. A “do not consume” advisory for their semi-public water system was set on Sept. 11, 2013 and designated a long-term advisory one year later.

Sean Molnar, communications officer for Wahta Mohawks Territory, provided a statement to Muskoka411 with input from Wahta Mohawks Chief Philip Franks and Director of Public Works Randy Sonmor. Their community has two types of water system: the semi-public system owned and operated by Wahta, which covers various community buildings and some rental units, and the individual systems owned and run by private homeowners and businesses. 

The drinking advisory was caused by moderately elevated levels of sodium, he said, and only applied to the administration building/community centre. It was likely caused by salt on roads in the winter, which ended up in surface and groundwater. Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) funded a project to install a new and upgraded water treatment system at the Administration Building in 2020, allowing Wahta Council to lift the advisory as of March 31, 2021.

“​​While that advisory was particularly aimed at the administration building/community centre in the community, it did not encompass drinking water conditions at many residences in the community,” Molnar said. “It was made abundantly clear to the Minister of Indigenous Services at that time that the successful refurbishment of treatment in one location was not the end of the issue.”

ISC-funded studies and projects conducted over the last two years have improved water treatment at other Wahta-owned buildings, Molnar said. Public Works staff also test the water at Wahta-owned buildings monthly to make sure it meets drinking water standards.

Despite the ongoing improvements to the water system owned by Wahta, a significant gap remains when it comes to privately owned homes in the community, he said, and additional government support is needed to address it. ISC assured Wahta Council that the agency would continue to support their efforts in supplying safe drinking water to the whole community.

A study looking at the possibility of creating a treatment plan for at least part of the community found that groundwater sources in the area could not supply enough water for everyday needs, much less allow for the necessary backup supply in case of a fire or an issue with the main source.

Some water systems in the area have problems with bacteria caused by aging septic fields as well as above-average levels of sodium, manganese, iron and other chemicals. Though the concentration of chemicals may not be high enough to be dangerous, it can cause stains on laundry and, more importantly, affect the taste of the water.

“To date, we are still looking at a sustainable method of treatment for homes that would consider ongoing escalated operation and maintenance costs,” Molnar said. “When we have reached a decision on what the best technology would be to move forward, we fully expect the federal government will assist in supporting the extra costs involved.”

To read the Canadian Environmental Law Association’s report, click here. For more information on long-term water advisories, visit the Government of Canada’s website.


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