By Amber Johnson and Sue Dick
Water is one of the most abundant natural resources on Earth. It is essential to all biological processes and to sustain life. Without water, we cease to exist – something unimaginable for most. But, for First Nations, it’s a torturous reality. Indigenous issues have been perceived as more newsworthy across Canada and the world since the bodies of Indigenous children were located on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in May 2021. This event sparked a newfound interest in seeking justice for Indigenous children. This was the awakening that called settlers out on the atrocities that have happened in the country they know as Canada. Unfortunately, this is not the only atrocity that has occurred and continues to occur across this country towards the Indigenous people. In 2023, many Indigenous Reserves still have inadequate access to clean water. Indigenous researchers provide evidence that water insecurity directly results from colonization. Settlers forced Indigenous people onto the Reserves, yet settlers have access to clean drinking water while Indigenous folks do not. Evidently, this is a direct result of the Canadian colonial heritage.
Water issues have been front and centre in the media, yet many are perceived to be “up north” or in remote areas. It is perplexing to know that in Southern Ontario, 15 kilometres from Brantford and 31 kilometres from Hamilton—two larger cities—lies a First Nations Reserve that lacks connection to drinkable water. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people of the Six Nations of the Grand River have been here since time immemorial, and they
Nestle has continuously been extracting water from Six Nations of the Grand River to purify, bottle, and sell, while residents of Six Nations continue to lack clean water
are stewards of the land with a “duty to protect” it with consideration for future generations. Although there are six nations that constitute the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, there is a shared core value amongst them named the Seventh Generation Principle. This principle is rooted in the knowledge that the decisions made today will result in a direct impact on the future seven generations. Therefore, there should always be careful consideration and promotion of the most sustainable decisions regarding natural resources such as water.
So, why is it that many rural communities, the same distance away from these major centres, all have clean water when most of those on Six Nations of the Grand River do not? Seems ironic when considering the name of this First Nations Territory. Notably, over 80 percent of the residences on Six Nations do not have access to clean drinking water, despite having a multi-million dollar water treatment plant on the reserve since 2013. This project was funded by the Federal Government and Six Nations Reserve itself. Seemingly, the prominent barrier is a financial one, as piping is needed to run from the treatment plant to each individual residence and this has proven to be a costly requirement for potable water access, which most are unable to fulfill. To further complicate the issue, Nestle has continuously been extracting water from Six Nations of the Grand River to purify, bottle, and sell, while residents of Six Nations continue to lack clean water. Many believe the issue of water inequity is embedded within environmental racism, which allows for willful negligence.
Depending on the location of the reserve, those responsible for water services vary. In Ontario, the First Nations community and the Government of Canada are both responsible for the quality management of drinking water. Responsibilities are clearly set out on the Indigenous Services Canada website.
In 2007, implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began, and included in that agreement was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The purpose of this Commission was to assist in the progress of reconciliation between the Indigenous people, their communities, non-Indigenous Canadians, and the Government. To promote this, between 2007 and 2015, the TRC travelled to various areas of Canada and hosted national events to hear from witnesses and survivors, and to share their experiences to educate the public about the history of the residential school system.
In 2015, the TRC released a final report, which included “94 Calls to Action” (or recommendations) for the Canadian Government and presented this report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who vowed a commitment to fulfilling the recommendations of the Calls to Action report. Within the final report, under the heading Legacy, subheading Health, reads Call to Action 19, addressing the closure of gaps in the health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, which identifies the availability of appropriate health services. This would include water treatment plants and/or the accessibility of safe, clean drinking water.
It is worth noting that to date, only 13 of the 94 Calls to Action have been accomplished in the seven years since its inception. In 2017, the Government of Canada allocated a sum of money to assist with the drinking water situation in First Nations communities. The situation was scheduled to be resolved by March 2021, yet a report from the Office of the Auditor General states it is still unresolved. In December 2020, Indigenous Services Canada reported they would not be able to meet their objective. The 2013 “Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act” was repealed on June 23, 2022. Following this, the Government of Canada is in consultation with First Nations looking for a legislative draft. Once again, it appears there has been an interruption to the Government’s previously stated commitment.
Water is a human right as identified by the United Nations. This denial of an essential human right is exacerbated by lack of access, pollution, racism, lack of finances, maintenance of systems, and ecological damage.
The health effects of unclean water have been documented heavily over the years, just as heavy as the toxic chemicals which have been found in water samples. Varying contaminants have been recorded throughout several First Nations communities’ water sources, including E. coli and heavy metals such as uranium and mercury. In a Guardian article dated April 30, 2021, some Indigenous leaders from Curve Lake are suing the government of Canada for failing in this promise. The article also says that the government does not track waterborne illness in the First Nations communities.
Human Rights Watch reports that there are no drinking water protections for those on reserves in Canada. Several parasites and chemicals have been found in much of the drinking water in these reserves. Some of these are responsible for skin disease, and gastrointestinal disorders. In 2016, they conducted research on First Nations in Ontario. During this research, they found that the Canadian government violated several human rights obligations. Provincial regulations do not extend to those on First Nations. Although First Nations Chiefs and councils are responsible for owning and operating water systems. The governance of capital costs as well as some operation and maintenance, are the responsibility of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In 2016, several First Nations women attended Geneva to report their concerns regarding children’s illnesses because of the lack of clean water to the United Nations.
The issue remains that on one side of the road, occupants have water, while on the other side – namely, the reserve – there is no clean running water. This was brought forth in an Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) report by Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill, a professor at McMaster University and resident of Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. The video highlighted the process of using a cistern and the potential health dangers as well as the inconsistency of this process. Cisterns are one of the leading sources of contamination and this can cause even more health issues such as COVID, stomach cancer, liver disease, and loss of life loss. Many residents of Six Nations of the Grand River suspect they have become ill physically, mentally, and spiritually due to the water on the territory. Rumours circulate throughout the community giving suggestions of a connection between the sick water and cancer diagnoses, mental health struggles, chronic illnesses and lost loved ones.
Rachel Arsenault reported that Six Nations’ water is contaminated and not fit to drink or cook with, bathe in, or even use for laundry. As a result of this contamination, many organisms and species that maintain the ecosystem of the Grand River have been negatively affected, including the extermination of some local sustenance such as fish. This not only affects the physical well-being of Indigenous people, but also has a negative influence on the spiritual and cultural relationships between the people of Six Nations, water, and the traditional lands. If the land is sick, so are all the living things in it, with water insecurity putting women and youth at the highest risk.
Lack of clean drinking water is a direct result of ongoing systemic and environmental racism
Participants in a study provided testimony of the need to ration water, add bleach to it or spend exorbitant amounts of money on bottled water. The stress increases exponentially for family members who are responsible for elderly parents or relatives as well as for new mothers who must make sure they have quality breast milk or formula. This, in turn, causes new problems as First Nations individuals are experiencing mental health concerns, including disproportionately high suicide rates, nationally. In most instances, these mental health struggles can be attributed to many biopsychosocial factors stemming from colonialism, intergenerational trauma due to residential school involvement, systemic racism, and water insecurity.
In 2022, Six Nations applied for consideration in the class action lawsuit regarding clean drinking water on the reserve. They were denied. As of March 8, 2023, Six Nations reapplied to be part of the First Nations Drinking Water Settlement. If successful, the hope is that they will receive the proper funding to complete the construction for providing clean water to each household on the reserve.
It is important to recognize that this article is being penned by an Indigenous-Scottish mixed author, with family ties to the Six Nations of the Grand River, and a settler of Jewish, Irish, and Danish ancestry. Both authors recognize that this lack of clean drinking water is a direct result of ongoing systemic and environmental racism. The Indian Act is still in place, Indigenous folks are still on reserves, and there have only been false promises for access to clean water. This is not only happening in “far-off” rural areas but also bordering major cities. Indigenous people have always been willing to work alongside settlers as agreed upon in the 1613 treaty. They are still willing to work with settlers now despite them only providing the Haudenosaunee with 5% of the Haldimand Tract that was granted to them.
In 2023, we are still dealing with human rights violations by our Canadian government. Do we need another Residential School tragedy to clear our vision? Indigenous people ask for settlers to help make a difference by educating themselves, donating, showing up for community events, and promoting change. We should all want a healthy and sustainable home for our children and future generations. We should all be striving to live by the Seventh Generation Principle.
Niá:wen kó:wa Ó:nen ki’ wáhi
Amber Johnson is Kanien’kehá:ka and a band member of Six Nations with an Honours Bachelor of Social Work. Sue Dick has a doctorate in education and just completed Master of Peace and Conflict
Studies at the University of Waterloo.
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