British Columbia’s Okanagan Indian Band is suing the federal government over what it alleges to be a “failure to ensure the safety of drinking water.”
The Vernon-based Band claims that after nine years of collaboration with the federal government, there have been upgrades to just one of seven water systems.
Okanagan Chief Byron Louis claimed “the federal government has put the lives of our people at risk.”
In a statement to media, Chief Louis added: “We have lost faith in a system that I would characterize as negligent. We are stuck in limbo between federal policy that underfunds our system and provincial infrastructure resources we cannot access. The federal government is simply not serious about safe drinking water for First Nations communities.”
The Okanagan Indian Band alleges that its water systems rely entirely on groundwater wells that supply untreated water to hundreds of homes. It states that the wastewater from those homes goes to individual septic fields that may be contaminating groundwater. The chief cites but does not provide a link to a 2010 report that he says found potential risk to human health from the reserve’s water systems.
Global News has posted a link to the Okanagan Indian Band’s Statement of Claim.
In an interview with CBC News, federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said he was “surprised” by the chief’s comments, noting it was the first time he’d been made aware of the water issues raised. O’Regan added that he is aware of six on-reserve water systems and that five are certified as safe to drink from. The sixth had been deemed “high-risk” due to unacceptable levels of manganese, but the First Nations Health Authority addressed the problem and certification for the final water system is coming “very soon,” he told CBC News.
Eighty-seven water quality advisories have been lifted since 2015, according to the Indigenous Services Canada website. Fifty-six remain in place.