A group of First Nations has announced the launch of a new campaign to affirm First Nations’ human right to safe drinking water in Canada.
Led by the Okanagan Indian Band, near Vernon, British Columbia, and Ermineskin Cree Nation in central Alberta, the groups say the campaign addresses the “failures” of recent federal governments to address the longstanding issue of questionable drinking water and water treatment infrastructure.
“Aging and inadequate infrastructure coupled with an unwillingness by the federal government to spend the infrastructure dollars needed to fix the problem has left more and more communities with unsafe drinking water,” Chief Byron Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band announced in a statement.
Ermineskin Cree Nation is set to present to the Assembly of First Nations Water Symposium in late November, following the federal election, to encourage other First Nations across Canada to push for the right to safe drinking water and encourage new legal actions from First Nations across the country.
Chief Craig Makinaw of the Ermineskin Cree Nation has stated that there is a need for First Nations across Canada to band together and find strength in new partnerships. He said, “The federal government has been able to get away with things because each First Nation has been trying to address this alone.”
Makinaw added: “Co-ordination on our lawsuits is only a first step.”
Chief Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band said that he has connected with the Ermineskin Cree Nation, Sucker Creek First Nation and two other Alberta First Nations that commenced an action in federal court in 2014 seeking confirmation of the right to safe drinking water. That action was stayed as the parties entered negotiations, he said. That stay has now been lifted.
The Okanagan Indian Band commenced a similar legal action on August 15, 2019. Chief Louis alleges that the reserve’s water systems rely entirely on groundwater wells that supply untreated water to hundreds of homes. He said that the wastewater from those homes goes to individual septic fields that may be contaminating groundwater.
The federal government claims it is on track in its commitment to end all long-term drinking water advisories for public systems on reserves by March 2021. Since November 2015, 87 long-term advisories affecting public systems on reserves have been lifted. There are currently 56 long-term advisories affecting public systems on reserves remaining, according to the Indigenous Services Canada website.