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Canada is blessed with water. It is abundant in nature, and widely accessible through safe and affordable public water systems. Those living in urban settings have access to some of the best drinking water and wastewater services anywhere.

Such access has not been available to Indigenous peoples in Canada, however, for many years. In many First Nations communities across the country, such basic services as clean drinking water and safe sanitation have been shockingly absent, a situation that compounds other social and health crises.

Many have lived under “Drinking Water Advisories” – or DWAs – where all their water for personal use must either be boiled or delivered in huge plastic containers too heavy for many to use. A single DWA can mean as many as 5,000 people lack access to safe, clean drinking water. Some current DWAs go back 25 years.

The lack of clean, safe drinking water is a clear violation of Canada’s commitment to the UN recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation. Rectifying this travesty is a key goal of the reconciliation process now underway in the country.

There are 634 First Nations communities in Canada, many in remote areas that are hard to reach in winter. When the current federal government came to power in 2015, there were 93 First Nations communities under 133 different Drinking Water Advisories, and some new ones were added in recent years.

At the time, Prime Minister Trudeau promised to end all long-term DWAs within five years. While his government did not reach that goal as of 2023, it has spent well over $4 billion on water infrastructure in First Nations communities and lifted 139 long-term DWAs, including all of those in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

There are 31 long-term DWAs still in place in 27 communities across the country. The government has vowed to end them all.

In 2021, the Federal Court of Canada approved a multi-billion dollar legal settlement that requires the federal government to take swifter action to clean up contaminated drinking water in Indigenous communities and compensate First Nations for the decades they went with no access to clean water. The government must spend at least $6 billion over nine years to fund water infrastructure and operations in First Nations communities, and will pay $1.5 billion in damages to about 140,000 Indigenous people.

In 2016, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of Indigenous peoples and elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms. Importantly, it encompasses a more collective approach to human rights and recognizes the cultural, social, and resource heritage of First Nations.

Addressing the issue of safe drinking water in First Nations communities is a moral and political imperative, and is key to fulfilling Canada’s UNDRIP obligations.


By: Maude Barlow