Human rights group condemns feds over lack of First Nations water access

originally posted on June 7, 2016


An international human rights advocacy group is condemning the federal government’s failure to address ongoing drinking water advisories on reserves.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch published the 92-page report, called Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis, details the extent and impact of drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across the country. According to Health Canada, as of March 31, 2016, there were 133 of these advisories in effect in 89 First Nations communities across Canada, excluding British Columbia. Among these, some of the longest-standing are found in Shoal Lake 40 — the source of Winnipeg’s drinking water — parts of which have been under a boil water advisory since 1997.

In addition to Human Rights Watch, international organizations including Amnesty International and the United Nations have criticized Canada’s record on water access for First Nations communities.

Human Rights Watch did research in Ontario First Nations communities — where the majority of advisories are concentrated — from July 2015 to April this year, focusing on the impacts of the advisories on the communities and the residents themselves. Researchers undertook water and sanitation surveys with 99 households, home to 325 people, in five reserves, and conducted 111 qualitative interviews with community leaders, members and experts.

“We found that the Canadian government has violated a range of international human rights obligations toward First Nations persons and communities by failing to remedy the severe water crisis,” the report states. As a signatory on at least five international human rights conventions that can be interpreted to guarantee access to clean water, Canada is obligated to respect and protect that right, and provide access when communities can’t.

Raymond Harper lives in St. Theresa Point First Nation, in the Island Lake region. He was involved in a recent University of Manitoba research project into water access issues in the area. Seventeen per cent of the community lives without running water, he said, and 32 per cent still rely on cisterns brought in by the government as a temporary solution.

“It’s a health issue,” he said.

Many students don’t go to school because they don’t have clean clothes and can’t have showers at home, Harper said. The school itself, which is at the end of water line, is also frequently shut down because water pressure in the building is unpredictable, sometimes shutting off for an hour or more without warning.

“I think it’s a major human rights infraction,” he said. “There should be a lot more investment in water infrastructure in our reserve, and surrounding communities.”

Karen Busby, the director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba, said the report is significant not only because of the research itself, but because of the clout and resources Human Rights Watch can offer the cause.

“Once the Human Rights Watch writes a report, then they are committed to lobbying around that report,” Busby said. “Their credibility and resources bringing to bear on a problem are really important… That’s significant to be able to do that.”

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