Iqaluit’s Water Crisis Demands Action Now

The government continues to neglect the health of Indigenous communities

On October 12, the city of Iqaluit, Nunavut declared a state of emergency following the discovery of fuel contamination in their water supply. A full month later, the city remains in a water crisis, with little indication as to when the water supply will be back in service. The Canadian Armed Forces have been enlisted for an indeterminate period of time to provide potable water to residents. This indefinite military presence in the city is disturbing – the government is forcing citizens to depend on the armed forces for drinking water, a basic necessity. As a city with a large Inuit population, the crisis in Iqaluit highlights the federal government’s continued disregard of Indigenous peoples and their health. According to Lorraine Rousseau, Public Service Alliance of Canada North Regional Executive Vice President, this represents “decades of broken promises and ongoing inequalities that Inuit and Indigenous communities face.”

This is the fourth water crisis that Iqaluit has faced in four years, as the municipal government lacks appropriate services and provisions for a city of its size. According to former Deputy Mayor Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, the crisis is a result of this “aging and crumbling infrastructure.” This is in part due to decades of budget cuts at the federal and provincial levels. Iqaluit is suffering from a “municipal infrastructure deficit;” the city simply does not have enough money to make necessary upgrades to water and waste infrastructure. More than $50 billion is needed for the upgrades that would prevent future contamination of the water supply.

In addition to the  near constant water crises, the city of Iqaluit is currently facing a housing crisis – it needs around 1,400 new homes to account for the growing population. However, the ability to build new homes is limited as the old infrastructure “doesn’t have the capacity” to accommodate new-build structures. The increasing population further strains the city’s already fragile pipe system. This makes fixing the city’s poor infrastructure even more crucial, as more people will be relying on Iqaluit’s pipe system to provide potable water.

The lack of infrastructure maintenance fosters poverty and sickness in communities. As Brewster notes, Iqaluit is home to a large Indigenous population, with Inuit people making up 53.6 per cent of the city. Brewster draws attention to the systemic consequences of continued water crises on Indigenous peoples in Iqaluit; “It’s the Inuit that live here that are most at risk of suffering due to this water crisis, because of their baseline health status and levels of poverty.”

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s liberal government promised to end the water crises faced by Indigenous communities by March 2021. Iqaluit is one of many places that has faced immeasurable harm from the lack of commitment to that promise. As of now, 33 First Nation communities still live under a boil water advisory, with 73 per cent of First Nations’ water systems at high or medium risk of contamination – the same type of crisis Iqaluit is facing. Despite this, the Liberal government has started prioritizing public-private partnerships as a solution to water crises, instead of funding infrastructure development and initiatives in communities most affected. These partnerships mean that private entities are tasked with the provision of water to communities, which ultimately costs more overall and leads to the privatization of water. This asserts illegitimate settler colonial authority under which the state commodifies and subsequently restricts access to natural resources. As such, Indigenous people do not have access to the basic necessity of potable drinking water.

The Trudeau government’s neglect is extending water crises, and prioritizing the interests of private companies over the lives of Indigenous communities. Although Trudeau proudly touts budget allocations for failing infrastructure projects in First Nations communities, these funds are insufficient, as they only comprise around a tenth of what would be required to repair infrastructure across so-called Canada.

Despite the ongoing problems faced by Iqaluit’s population, social media and news coverage on the city’s water crisis has dwindled, putting Indigenous communities in danger and allowing the government to avoid addressing the issue. To improve conditions for those living through water crises, it is imperative that this momentum is not lost: for settler readers, continue speaking about injustices faced by Indigenous communities and put ongoing pressure on all levels of government to enact change. Engage with and amplify social media content that talks about the water crisis in Iqaluit, such as the Twitter accounts of Iqaluit city council members, and TikTokers @candyinuk and @annieneevee. Contact the office of Justin Trudeau, engage in political protests, and sign the Council of Canadians petition to end drinking water advisories in First Nations communities. If you are able, donate to organizations working with Indigenous communities to resolve local water crises such as Water First and True North Aid.