First Nations and Canada’s Priorities

The current Wet’suwet’sen controversy is vexing and perplexing in equal measure. Eventually, with the rest of Canada, I may get all that figured out.

What is infuriating and not at all confusing, however, is an issue that seems, and I say this with full irony, crystal clear: the fact that many, many of our First Nations are without clean running water.

It’s 2020…in a country with 20% of the world’s fresh water, second only to Iceland in renewable water supply per capita. How can over a hundred reserves across our country still be required to boil water or have it trucked to them?

A recent article in The Walrus, among many others easily garnered on the internet, paints an awful picture of partial gains and major losses, one step forward and another step back, and several, it appears, sideways. Here are some of the absurdities and outrages.

There are, across our country, over 60 long-term water advisories. That means that for over a year more than sixty aboriginal communities have been told that they cannot use their water safely without boiling it. Dozens more are experiencing a “short-term” (less than a year—a year) advisory. 

Some reserves, such as Neskantaga and Shoal Lake 40 First Nations, have been under an advisory for more than twenty years. An entire generation is now entering adulthood who have never been able to drink water from their taps.

What’s in that water? E. coli and coliform contamination. Uranium. (Yes, uranium.) And suspected carcinogens: trihalomethanes that form when the “tea water” (the local water supply “browned” by organic material) interacts with the chlorine meant to purify it.

Why isn’t the water purified properly everywhere? 

Well, how about engineering triumphs such as placing water intakes downstream of the outflows of sewage treatment? Or providing new machines, and even whole treatment plants, but no money for operation, maintenance, and training? Or funds being made available to upgrade homes with plumbing, but no money to bring water to homes currently lacking indoor plumbing?

Follow the money, and you find that there is much lower funding for reserves than for municipalities of the same size. You find that the federal government insists on an 80/20 funding formula regardless of a band’s ability to pay that 20 per cent. You find that feasibility studies sit on desks as governments change and then have to be re-done to satisfy the next government.

But maybe, you might wonder, it’s because some of the reserves are in wildly out-of-the-way places. Some are, but then you might ask why they are on land that no one else wanted, and why they are so small that traditional ways of hunting and gathering have been preposterously impossible. Answer: The reserves were set up in the nineteenth century, like the 1876 Indian Act itself, as only temporary devices, since the explicit policy of one government after another was the disappearance of all such settlements through assimilation to the white majority population.

Many reserves, however, are not remote at all. Consider the Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, smack dab between Brantford and Caledonia. Those two towns, of course (of course), have all the clean water they need. Less than 10 per cent of the homes in between, on the Six Nations reserve, have the same basic service.

The Harper government spent a billion dollars or so to remediate the situation. So has the Trudeau government that followed. That’s good news, and some improvements in some places have been made. 

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated that it will take a little over three billion dollars to eliminate all of the advisories across the country. So at least we’re in the right neighbourhood, but three billion is a lot. How can we find three billion to spend? 

Consider that over a recent five-year period, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada returned a billion dollarsto the federal treasury for lack of authorized places to spend that money. That’s one billion, right there.

Then consider that the Trudeau government is thinking about spending two billion dollars on a tunnel linking Newfoundland to the mainland, a massive project that will save no driving time and no shipping costs relative to the ferry service available now.

Think about that, and you might start to understand a little better why First Nations people occasionally explode with rage over the politics and priorities of the rest of Canada. 

I don’t know what to do about the Wet’suwet’en situation. But getting clean water to my fellow Canadians— 

How is that still a question?

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