Water is Threatened

This teaching is based on a series of articles and reports that are referenced below, and features and interview with Biidaabinokwe Jessica Keeshiig Martin, a member of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation from Neyaashiinigmiing, Saukiing Anishnaabekiing.


­Water is Threatened:  The Water Crisis in Indigenous Communities and on Reserves in colonial Canada

What is the current state of water on Indigenous reserves?

Imagine not being able to trust the water coming out of your tap. Across Canada, Indigenous peoples have experienced water being threatened and harmed in extreme ways. On reserves, drinking water is often contaminated, hard to access, or at risk due to faulty treatment facilities (Galway, 2016; Human Rights Watch, 2016). Household water supply can be brown, foul smelling, and may even stain metal (Phare, 2009). Tests conducted in six communities have shown that water contains toxic chemicals, such as uranium and mercury, and is associated with elevated rates of infectious disease (Phare, 2009). This water is clearly undrinkable and has led to serious physical and psychological harm, ranging from waterborne disease to death (Boyd, 2011; Farenhorst, 2017). That is unacceptable. Anywhere else in Canada, these threats to water would be considered a major health crisis (Patrick, 2011). However, the reality is that these poor water conditions are common in Indigenous communities across Canada. People living in homes on reserves are 90 times more likely to be without running water (Boyd, 2011). The Canadian 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 nonexistent water treatment systems” (“Implementation of ICESCR” as cited by Boyd, 201l, p.85).   

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These conditions are not new. Drinking water advisories have been used for decades to alert communities when their water is unsafe to drink (Health Canada, 2018). Over 100 Indigenous communities live with permanent boil water advisories (Bakker, 2009). In communities such as Neskantaga and Shoal Lake 40 First Nations, advisories have existed for approximately 20 years, meaning a whole generation of children grew up unable to drink water from the taps (Human Rights Watch, 2016). When boil water advisories are issued, community members are directed to boil water for one minute prior to use. This includes water used for drinking, ice, brushing teeth, food preparation, and infant formulas (Health Canada, 2009). In cases where water cannot be boiled, communities are asked to disinfect water using household bleach or purchase commercially packaged water (Health Canada, 2009).

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In these communities, people are faced with the additional task of sourcing clean water for themselves and their families. These added precautions are an extra financial cost and social burden that disproportionally affect children, the elderly, and lower income families (Bradford et al., 2016; Galway, 2016).  In particular, caregivers in these communities (most often women) tend to shoulder a greater burden of care and worry to ensure that at-risk individuals (children, elders, and people with disabilities or serious illnesses) avoid exposure to this unsafe water (Human Rights Watch, 2016). These concerns may result in changed hygiene habits, which include limiting baths or showers for children (Human Rights Watch, 2016).

Case study: Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations Intergenerational Mercury Poisoning

From the 1960s to the early 1970s, a chemical plant at the Reed Paper mill dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River, which is upstream of the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog communities in Ontario (Porter, n.d.). The mercury contaminated the water and poisoned the fish and other organisms living in it (Temper, 2014). Today, nearly 60 years later, the water is still poisoned and undrinkable. Residents continue to suffer from the ongoing effects of mercury poisoning on their health and livelihoods (Kolley, 2012,2018) A study completed in 2011 by Japanese doctor Masazumi Harada, a specialist researcher on severe mercury poisoning (known as "Minamata disease"), revealed that this contaminated water has had extreme health impacts on community members. These impacts included: sensory disturbances on the limbs, difficulty walking a straight line, difficulty seeing, visual disturbances, hearing impairment, headaches, insomnia, exhaustion, fatigue, and numbness in the limbs (Harada et al, 2011). The Globe and Mail (2012, updated 2018) found that in Grassy Narrows, internal mercury levels are three times above the limit recommended by Health Canada. In Whitedog, levels were more than seven times above the national guidelines (Kolley 2012 & 2018).

In both communities, people are not able to drink the water from their taps. They are not even able to bathe in it. In an interview with the Human Rights Watch (2009), Debora, a woman in Grassy Narrows First Nation, shared how bathing her son in the water resulted in an unknown skin condition: “I kept taking him to the clinic and they kept saying it was eczema. His belly and buttocks got really red, oozy and it spread. The ointment [they gave me] didn’t work. I took him again”. Eventually her son was diagnosed with a skin disease that resists most antibiotics.  As a result, she had to bathe her son in bottled water (Human Rights Watch, 2009). Debora's story is a common occurrence among residents on both the Grassy Narrows and White Dog reservations. Furthermore, these health impacts are intergenerational. Porter (n.d) explains how once mercury is ingested, it never goes away. Through bioaccumulation, it first affects the fish (a major food source in both communities) then manifests in humans. According to the Globe and Mail (2012 & 2018), Resident Judy Da Silva has witnessed many births of babies born with brain cancer and other birth defects (Kolley 2012 & 2018).  The study also showed that 44 percent of people between 21 and 41 still showed signs of mercury poisoning (Kolley 2012 & 2018).

This information is public and known, yet very little is done about it. Since the release of Doctor Harada's 2011 report, federal designated payments for residents have ranged from $250 to $800 per month. This is largely insignificant as health and living costs far exceed these numbers (Porter, n.d.). This is also much lower than similar cases of mercury poisoning victims in Japan. They received $800,000 USD as compensation in 1973 and continue to receive $2,000 to $8,000 per month, based on the severity of symptoms (CBC, 2012). Additionally, Grassy Narrows only has access to a small nursing station, while mental health counselling on the reserve is nearly non-existent (Porter, n.d.). Clean water - quite literally - provides the ability to live. Without it, the people in the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations communities are slowly dying. Worse, these conditions are common in many Indigenous reserves across the country.

For more information, read an overview from the Environmental Justice Atlas: https://www.ejatlas.org/conflict/grassy-narrows-and-whitedog-first-nations-mercury-poisoning-ont-canada

A detailed report was done by the CBC after a child's death:


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Why is water threatened in Indigenous communities?


 There are many reasons for the water crisis on Indigenous reserves. In the big picture, water is being threatened due to historic and contemporary colonization. Colonialization refers to the tools of colonial law and governance ideologies used by the Canadian government to assert a dominant system of power over Indigenous peoples’ ways of being and knowing in their homelands some now call "Canada". These legal frameworks, such as the Indian Act (1876),  were used to justify the removal and displacement of Indigenous peoples from their traditional homelands to "Indian reserves" or small parcels of land (Patrick, 2011).  Over time, the lands surrounding these reserves have become degraded and contaminated due to the impacts of industrial activities, intensive agriculture, extractive mining, logging of watersheds, urban development, and other demands on the land, water, and air (Patrick, 2011; Walkhem 2006). These projects are located close to where Indigenous communities access water. In many cases these projects have altered or contaminated the watershed or source waters, reducing access to clean drinking water for entire communities (Walkhem, 2006, pg. 304). Ardith (Walpetko We’dalx) Walkem, legal scholar and member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation explains that “colonization has disrupted Indigenous people's ability to sustain themselves on the land and diminished the ability of our territories and water to sustain life” (Walkem, 2006, p. 304). 


In addition to adjacent contamination of waterways close to reserves, there are three other major reasons for continued lack of safe drinking water:

1. Lack of legal recognition to Indigenous inherent rights to water.

Indigenous peoples had inherent rights to water long before Canada and the provinces were created (Phare, 2009). Inherent water rights stem from Indigenous peoples’ existence on the land since time immemorial. They predate legal norms created by the Canadian state. However, the federal and provincial governments do not accept that Indigenous peoples have inherent water rights. This means Indigenous people cannot manage or use water without "permission" from the federal government, even if a reserve is directly beside a water source (Galway, 2016).

2. Lack of legal framework for water management

In Canada, there are no enforceable federal laws that set standards and rules to ensure safe drinking water in Canada, including Indigenous reserve lands. Provinces and territories have created legal frameworks that apply within their own boundaries, but these do not apply to Indigenous land and waters, which are under federal jurisdiction (under the Indian Act). The federal Indian Act set out the responsibilities of Chief and Council on reserve, but it did not provide comprehensive powers related to water management (Phare, 2009). This has led to a large regulatory gap for creating and sustaining drinking water systems on reserves. The shared responsibility of water treatment currently falls between Health Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and Indigenous communities themselves.

3. Lack of Adequate Money and Resources for Communities

Over time, the Canadian federal government has promised large sums of money to help “fix” the drinking water crisis on reserves. For example, between 2003 and 2008, $1.8 million dollars was pledged in a federal strategy to address Indigenous drinking water needs (Phare, 2009). This money was not enough. Lawyer Merrell-Anne Phare explains that only 67% of this federal funding was allocated to Indigenous communities themselves (Phare, 2009). The remaining funds went to federal government administration, subcontracting of services (to other levels of government and private-sector companies), and other Indigenous groups (not communities) (Phare, 2009).

Additionally, these large sums of money have been unsuccessful in changing water conditions on reserves. There are two main issues. The first problem is the high cost of water treatment facilities. Water treatment plants are expensive to build, operate, and maintain. On average a plant that services 600 people can initially cost over $6-million and requires a further $150,000 per year to maintain and operate (Phare, 2009).  Without consistent funding, clean drinking water is no longer economically viable for a community in the long-term. Second, water treatment plants have been built without proper expertise or long-term vision. Water treatment facilities on reserves require different expertise than large scale city infrastructure. Many of the federal standards and engineers hired are better suited for larger municipalities (Lum, 2017). This mis-match between a community's needs and expertise often leads to poorly designed facilities that use inappropriate or inadequate technology.  This can result in water treatment failures that the community does not have the knowledge or capacity to fix (Lum, 2017).

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The Federal Government and the Water Crisis Today

Despite past challenges to solving the water crisis on reserves, technological solutions are available (Lum, 2017). Implementing these solutions requires working with communities to design, build, and maintain water facilities. It requires long-term relationships with ongoing consultation (Lum, 2017). Currently, Prime Minister Trudeau has vowed to “end boil water advisories on First Nations reserves” within five years of forming his government (Lum, 2017). In March of 2016, the Trudeau government released a federal budget outlining $8.4 billion worth of spending commitments to Indigenous communities. Over a five-year period $1.8 billion of the budget will be directed at water system and waste water system infrastructure (Lum, 2017).

Track their progress here: https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1506514143353/1533317130660



When water is threatened - Indigenous forms of life, language, and law are threatened. Ardith (Walpetko We’dalx) Walkem explains that “Indigenous cultures are tied closely to the land and waters, when our waters are endangered, the very survival and identity of Indigenous peoples is endangered” (Walkhem 2006, pg. 304). Water provides teachings for how to protect and care for it and ourselves for future generations. “Indigenous peoples have maintained an awe and reverence for the life-giving force of water and, across generations, have continued to call for a return of Indigenous laws and traditions so we can protect our peoples, water, and territories” (Walkhem 2006, pg. 304).

Biidaabinokwe Jessica Keeshig Martin speaks for the water.

River Michele Wannitikul Walter is a Chinese-Thai, German-American settler who grew up on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) homelands (in what is now called Vancouver) and in the city of Krueng Themp (Bangkok) Thailand. She acknowledges that this piece cannot cover the extent of how water is being threatened today and with it the interconnected social, environmental and economic implications for Indigenous peoples living within the structures of colonial Canada. As a non-Indigenous person, she does not attempt to speak for communities, rather draw on their voices and literature to describe, rather than define what is happening with water today.