Toronto, Canada – Canada is violating its international human rights obligations by failing to provide adequate, sanitary water supplies to First Nations communities, several of which are facing a “broader systemic crisis”, Human Rights Watch said.
Water in First Nations communities “is contaminated, hard to access, or at risk due to faulty treatment systems,” the human rights group said in a 92-page report released on Tuesday.
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“Make it Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis” reported that drinking water advisories were in effect in 134 water systems in 85 First Nations reserves across the country – a majority in the province of Ontario – as of January 2016.
Drinking water advisories are put in place by First Nations communities under advice from Health Canada when household water is unfit to drink. Thirty-six percent of the advisories in Ontario last year had been in place for more than a decade.
“Tainted water and broken systems on Ontario’s First Nations reserves are jeopardising health, burdening parents and caregivers, and exacerbating problems on reserves,” said Amanda Klasing, a senior HRW researcher and author of the report, in a statement.
“First Nations people have the same human rights to adequate water and sanitation as all Canadians, but in practice cannot access them.”
To date, First Nations communities are not subjected to drinking water regulations, which has “led to disparate outcomes in access to safe drinking water and sanitation” when compared with non-Indigenous communities in Canada, the report stated.
The problem is also linked to low levels of government funding, poor water and sanitation infrastructure and depleted natural water sources.
During the Canadian election campaign last October, now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to eliminate boil-water advisories in First Nations communities by 2020.
The federal budget unveiled in March pledged $8.4bn for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, including $1.8bn over five years for water and wastewater infrastructure.
But despite the promises, the problems persist.
Many households surveyed by HRW said they believed skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis were related to or worsened by the quality of water in their homes. At-risk groups such as children, women, caregivers, the elderly, and people with disabilities feel the problem most acutely, the report found.
“I kept taking him to the clinic and they kept saying it was eczema. His belly and buttocks got really red, oozy and it spread,” said Debora C, a woman in Grassy Narrows First Nation, in northwestern Ontario, about a recurrent rash on her nine-year-old son.
The rash was eventually diagnosed as a skin disease that resists most antibiotics and Debora must use bottled water to bathe him, the report stated.
Finding alternative sources of water has placed an added burden on First Nations communities already struggling with inadequate access to services, including healthcare and high poverty rates.
Little access to clean water has also exacerbated the housing shortage on reserves, as many houses are overcrowded and new homes cannot be built without better water and wastewater systems.
Another woman, known in the report as Roxanne M, told HRW that it takes her two hours every other day to find safe water to bathe her infant son, and an hour each day to wash his bottles safely.
“It makes me feel tired, exhausted. It’s stressful,” Roxanne said.
HRW called on Canada to develop a long-term plan – beyond the government’s five-year funding period – to address water and sanitation problems, and establish an independent First Nations water commission to track Ottawa’s performance.
It also recommended that Canada consult with First Nations on the cultural importance of water, and how cultural traditions can serve as the basis for a more sustainable water policy.
“Decades of failure to fulfill the rights to water and sanitation have caused lasting damage to First Nations communities,” the report stated. “It is time for Canada to make it safe.”