By Mark Hancock and Debra Merrier
On World Water Day, it’s time to recognize and act on the failures the pandemic has brought to light in our communities. Over the past year, public services have been a reassuring lifeline, including the safe, clean public water flowing from our faucets. But when it comes to this fundamental right, the Liberal government of Canada has failed Indigenous peoples.
Access to water and sanitation are human rights according to international law, yet many Indigenous communities in Canada have water that’s unsafe to drink or wash with. Some communities have lived with unsafe water for decades. Other First Nations don’t have functioning water or sewage treatment systems at all.
COVID-19 has compounded the ongoing injustices endured by many Indigenous communities. Without clean, running water it’s difficult, if not impossible, to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus. Inferior and inadequate housing and health care add to the heightened COVID risks that Indigenous communities have faced over the past year.
In 2015, the Liberals made an election promise to ensure safe, drinkable water for all First Nation communities by March 2021. Last month, the federal auditor general’s report on the First Nations drinking water crisis revealed that, even before the pandemic, the Liberal government wasn’t on track to meet this promise. Worse, the report showed that the federal government’s approach lacks the long-term, predictable funding for operations and maintenance needed to truly end the crisis. Wages and working conditions for many on-reserve water operators make it hard to find and keep trained staff.
The government’s response to the auditor general’s report is completely unacceptable: a new web site, and no deadline to end this water injustice. The Trudeau government’s piecemeal approach has failed miserably. The need for serious, coordinated and fully resourced action couldn’t be more urgent.
That starts with ending chronic underfunding of water services – along with all Indigenous services and infrastructure. The Liberals must also ensure Indigenous communities directly control their water systems and services, instead of pushing expensive and risky public-private “partnership” deals with corporate middlemen.
In addition to a lack of infrastructure, many Indigenous communities rely on water sources that have been harmed by resource development projects or are being threatened by new development through their territories. Corporate resource extraction, including the bottled water industry, is draining water sources, while Indigenous communities next door don’t have access to safe drinking water. Indigenous peoples across Canada are defending and reclaiming their waters and territories, protecting them from these abuses – abuses which our governments enable and often directly support.
For these reasons and more, CUPE recognizes that water is a basic human right, for all people. We believe that honouring Indigenous peoples' role as the stewards and protectors of the waters of their treaty lands and traditional unceded territories is key to meaningful reconciliation.
Canada has the resources to ensure every single person in this country can enjoy the right to accessible and clean drinking water, delivered and maintained by the community and not by corporations controlling services for their own profit. It’s time for the federal government to deliver.
It’s our collective shame that even a single Indigenous community has been denied the right to safe drinking water or functioning sewage treatment. This World Water Day, CUPE is calling for the federal government to finally do what it takes to end the water crisis in Indigenous communities.
Mark Hancock is the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Debra Merrier is CUPE’s Diversity Vice-President, Indigenous Workers. CUPE represents over 10,000 of the workers delivering public water and wastewater services in cities and towns across the country.