After enduring years and sometimes decades without safe drinking water, a historic $8 billion settlement is giving First Nations hope that “boil water” and “do not consume” advisories will soon be a relic of the past.
The federal settlement allocates $1.8 billion in compensation to impacted First Nations with a $6 billion commitment for construction and maintenance of safe water infrastructure across Canada. Any First Nation member who lived in a community affected by a boil-water advisory lasting over a year between November 20, 1995, and June 20, 2021, is eligible for compensation.
The legal battle began in 2019 with two separate lawsuits against the federal government – one by Curve Lake and Neskantaga First Nations and another by Tataskweyak Cree Nation. Altogether, 120 First Nations and 142,000 people from 258 First Nations could be compensated.
“You’re never going to hit a number that is going to be satisfactory for all the pain that this caused for the people who lived under these things,” said Harry LaForme, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs and an Anishinaabe from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. “Indigenous communities have had to suffer from these problems for decades and decades.”
The settlement also includes $50 million for eligible individuals who suffered certain injuries due to a drinking water advisory, modernization of Indigenous water legislation and the creation of a First Nations Advisory Committee on Safe Drinking Water. The creation of a First Nations Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund has been allocated $400 million.
The claims process opened March 7. Eligible First Nations have until December 22 to file their claims while individuals have until March 7, 2023. Compensation amounts will vary according to unique circumstances of drinking water advisories, including the “nature of the advisory, the length of residency, and the remoteness of the First Nations lands.”
Eligible communities are entitled to $500,000 for agreeing to the settlement, without detailing the ways the community was harmed.
“This is a historic moment for Tataskweyak Cree Nation and First Nations across the country,” Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence told the CBC. “First Nations will now be able to work with Canada in a more meaningful way and have access to water standards on reserve that have never existed before. We look forward to seeing the day where all First Nations have access to safe water, now and forever.”
Justin Trudeau campaigned in the 2015 election on a pledge to lift all long-term advisories by March 2021. When that deadline passed, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recommitted to the goal without providing another date. As of February 24, 36 long-term drinking advisories remained in 29 communities.
Auditor General Karen Hogan found last year that Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) was constrained by a lack of regulation and a funding policy that hadn’t been updated in 30 years. She called on ISC to work with First Nations to address problems with their water systems and develop legal protections comparable to other communities.
According to a 2015 report, people on First Nations reserves were 90 times more likely than other Canadians to be without running water with 26 times the number of water-borne infections. While most current advisories are to boil water, Bearskin Lake First Nation’s community centre has had a “do not consume” order for over 15 years.
Neskantaga First Nation has had the longest water advisory in Canada – 27 years. The remote Oji-Cree community of about 300 in northern Ontario has been under a “boil-water” advisory since its water treatment plant failed in 1995. The crisis has resulted in the local school’s closure and hundreds of evacuations.
Now it wants the feds to help dispose of the thousands of empty plastic bottles that accumulated over the years. Ottawa sends Neskantaga weekly water shipments but doesn’t bring back the used bottles. While the community’s water treatment plant was recently upgraded, work remains to address leaks and test its aging distribution system.
“It shouldn’t be like that in a country like Canada,” said Chief Wayne Moonias. “The faith and trust in the system is very low right now. Our community has suffered far too long.”
While 128 long-term water advisories have been lifted since November 2015, resolving these issues often requires a combination of feasibility studies, repairs and design work, construction of new infrastructure and improved monitoring systems. A new water treatment system takes up to four years to complete.
Last July, Lhoosk’uz Dené Nation in northern British Columbia celebrated its first clean drinking water in decades after collaborating with a team from the University of British Columbia (UBC). The remote village of 50 members drilled two wells in 2008 but found they had elevated contamination levels.
Beginning in 2014, UBC Professor Madjid Mohseni listened to the community’s needs and included them in all phases of development. The resulting water treatment facility is scaled to be simple but sustainable, using ultraviolet light and chlorine to disinfect the water.
Eeyou Istchee is fortunate to have tap water that is almost always safe and regularly tested for contamination. According to a 2013 report from the Cree Health Board, people often say they prefer the taste of water from traditional sources, and many spend long periods in hunting camps where tap water is unavailable.
While in the bush, people reported drinking from springs, lakes or rivers, melted snow or rainwater. As testing several of these sources yielded inconclusive results, it is recommended to boil water from natural sources for one minute before use – even to make tea. Household containers should regularly be cleaned with dish soap and rinsed thoroughly.