Commentary  Hyde Park: Canada must fix its water problems

In a country with a seemingly abundant supply of fresh water, the threat of a global water crisis seems far removed. However, not even our “water rich” nation is immune to the waves of water scarcity that have already swept across the global South.

In 2002, Environment Canada reported that one in four Canadian municipalities experienced water shortages, a figure which continues to increase as our flagrant over-use collides with a diminishing supply of available fresh water. Adding the projected impacts of global warming to the equation makes for a rather grim future.

But these issues pale in comparison to the immediate problem of access to potable water in First Nations communities across the country. The Pikangikum First Nations (community) is one of the largest First Nations populations in Northern Ontario. With Canada’s high standard of living, one would not expect to find water infrastructure in a state comparable to that of a developing nation.

Although the federal government constructed a water treatment plant in Pikangikum in 1996, 90 per cent of Pikangikum homes remain unconnected to the system. This leaves community members few options beyond manually obtaining water from the system or withdrawing contaminated lake water. When an oil leak forced the closure of the water treatment plant in 2000, the entire community was left high and dry, reliant on aerial shipments of bottled water by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. A report conducted by the Northwestern Health Unit in 2006 found above-average rates of health problems such as gastrointestinal and urinary infections. To this day, the community remains on a boil water advisory.

Unfortunately, Pikangikum is far from anomalous. As of April 2008, almost 100 First Nations communities continue to be on drinking water advisories. For Lansdowne House, Ontario, that advisory has been in place for 13 years.

When drinking water on the Kashechewan reserve in Saskatchewan was contaminated with unacceptably high levels of E. coli in October 2005, one-quarter of the community residents were subsequently evacuated. That same year, a report by the Office of the Auditor General states that, “When it comes to the safety of drinking water, residents of First Nations communities do not benefit from a level of protection comparable to that of people who live off reserves. This is partly because there are no laws and regulations governing the provision of drinking water in First Nations communities.” When adequate water systems do exist, 20 per cent of the operation and maintenance costs must be financed by the community members themselves, regardless of their ability to pay. For them, water which once flowed freely is now not only scarce, but is also a threat to their very livelihoods.

We take it for granted that the water we drink from the tap will arrive reliably in our homes and be of high quality. First Nations communities are denied access to a resource that is fundamental to life, and one wonders why our government has not taken action to ameliorate the deplorable conditions that persist within our nation.

Dana Holtby is a U1 Environment & Development student, and Rosie Simms is a U1 Environment student. Both are members of TAPthirst, they can be reached at