Indigenous Communities in Canada & the lack of clean water for decades

”In an photo from 2016, Potlotek First Nation resident Patricia Paul holds a sample of water she says came from her taps at home. In December 2019 the community got a new water treatment system. ©THE CANADIAN PRESS/Steve Wadden”

The scarcity of water is a race against time, a valuable element of nature, unfortunately not recognized to its true worth. Not only is scarcity truly preoccupying, the access to clean water, yet part of human rights, shifts rather to a privilege in the last decades around the world. Affecting many countries and communities, as Indigenous communities in Canada, unequal access to clean water among Canadian citizens is still on the back burner in Canadian politics. 

As 630 Indigenous communities are spread on the large diverse Canadian territory, the lack of clean water doesn’t impact them in the same way. 

But still, in 2021, around 71 Indigenous communities in Canada are under drinking water advisories, issued to alert people not to drink or consume unclean water for different purposes. Implemented when the water system does not work properly, drinking water advisories have different levels: 

  • Boil Water Advisory: When tap water has to be boiled before any use, as it contains contaminants. Elderly, infants and toddlers can’t use tap water.
  • Do Not Consume Advisory. When tap water is undrinkable, can’t be used for domestic purposes except showering and bathing. The water contains contaminants and can’t be removed by boiling.
  • When tap water can’t be used for any reason.
Maps showing how many communities with water advisories and the number of water advisories across Canada – ©ArcGIS StoryMaps

The lack of clean water is often a long-term issue for Indigenous communities in Canada, with almost 47% of them put in place for 10 years and more throughout Canada.

Over 20 years, a series of policies has been adopted, unsuccessfully solving the situation, despite the pledge of Justin Trudeau, about eradicating drinking water advisories by March 2021.

The consequences on physical health on Indigenous communities in Canada can range from eczema to gastrointestinal illnesses, causing stress and depression. As a result, Indigenous communities in Canada tend to have a lower life expectancy, by living 15 years shorter than non-Indigenous people. Unclear water strongly influences Indigenous communities’ environment as animals, agricultural lands, and food are negatively impacted.

An Indigenous child with rashes – ©The Star

Not only is safe water essential for Indigenous communities for physical well-being but also mental well-being. Water is considered sacred and a living entity to many Indigenous communities in Canada and they are missing such an important connection to water culturally, through ceremonies, customary fishing practices, and cultural transmission. 

Lack of maintenance of water systems, of experienced water system operators,  marginalization, pollution of mining operations, the causes of lack of clean water are multiples so the consequences. 

The government has failed to provide safe living spaces to many Indigenous communities in Canada despite measures put in place to tackle the lack of clean water, resulting in an increasing distrust of politicians and a great sentiment of despair. What could be in the next few years initiated to respond to such a critical situation and make sure to provide clean water to Indigenous communities in Canada?

The data drive approach has to be greatly improved. Many long-term studies, research from established academic and governmental institutions miss reporting deeply the lasting effect of unclean water on Indigenous communities’ mental health such as intergenerational traumas caused by the lack of clean water, the impact on animals and on nature.  Social awareness and accountability are long overdue in Canadian politics as issues faced by many Indigenous communities remain on the fringes. Environmental-oriented measures in line with indigenous cultures and natural elements are greatly expected over years, shifting radically systems leading into reparations and well-being, as to protect nature and animals, to provide for all of us a safer and respectful environment.

A Neskantanga First Nation person holding a sign – ©CARLOS OSORIO/THE CANADIAN PRESS


2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada to the Parliament of Canada

About drinking water advisories

Lack of Clean Drinking Water in Indigenous communities

‘An ongoing symbol of colonization’: How bad water affects First Nations’ health

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The Star



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