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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Water wars

BY Will Nicholls Jul 31, 2020

Of all the countries in the world, Canada has the largest supply of fresh water. Having clean water is something most Canadians take for granted. 

If you live in one of dozens of First Nations communities that live with long-term water advisories, however, it’s more like the line in the famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Coleridge Taylor: “Water, water everywhere / nor any drop to drink.”

When Justin Trudeau was leading his first election campaign as federal Liberal leader back in 2015, he raised hopes in First Nations communities by solemnly promising that none would be under a water advisory by March 2021. 

After years of inaction amid worsening conditions by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, it was like finding a lake in a desert after nearly dying of thirst. Unfortunately, that lake turned out to be a mirage, as it’s painfully obvious that Trudeau’s promise is nowhere near being met. Eight months away from Trudeau’s own deadline, people in 61 First Nations communities still cannot drink the water that comes out of their taps.

We now know that this was a choice by his government. Funds to the tune of $2 billion were allocated in the 2016 federal budget to address the water-quality problem, but to date two-thirds of the fund is still sitting in government accounts. And in 2018, former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpot promised that an additional $4 billion would be earmarked for Indigenous infrastructure could be tapped to honour the Liberal promise. 

Tired of listening to empty words, three First Nations in Manitoba hired lawyers and went to court. On July 21, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal ruled that their legal challenge can proceed as a class action suit. This means that any First Nations community in Canada that has been under a water advisory that lasted at least a year at any point from November 8, 1995, to present can join in. 

The lawsuit is seeking $1 billion in damages for the breach of Charter rights, $1 billion for negligence of fiduciary duty and $100 million in punitive damages. The lawsuit aims to have the government immediately construct appropriate water systems for the class members or fund and approve the construction of the water systems.

The lawsuit claims that Canada has violated the Charter of Rights for decades by failing to provide clean and safe drinking water for First Nations peoples. As lawyer Michael Rosenburg observed, “Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right.” That is a truth that is self-evident and one that continues to be ignored by the Canadian government. 

The court decision is encouraging but what does it really mean? The case will take on other First Nations with a few exceptions. There are five First Nations who are currently in court looking for clean drinking water for their members. Because these are active cases, they will not be allowed to join the class action suit. 

As for those who can join, each new class member will be adding reams of paper detailing their situation. That will mean the court will have to take time to ensure the validity of their claims. We can expect government lawyers will be contesting every comma and colon in the written submissions.

Whether Liberal or Conservative, Canadian governments have made a tradition of fighting to the bitter end every attempt by First Nations to enjoy the same quality of life that Canadians take for granted. Such as the ability to drink a glass of tap water.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.