INVESTIGATION: First Nations Water systems at risk – by Matthew McClearn (Globe and Mail – August 29, 2016)

Despite an election promise by Justin Trudeau to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years, data suggest the federal government will fall short of the objective without significant changes in its approach to rectifying problem, Matthew McClearn reports

One-third of First Nations people living on reserves use drinking water systems that threaten their health, an investigation by The Globe and Mail has found.

Roughly 57,000 people living on 101 reserves across Canada obtain water from treatment plants and pipe networks the government deem to be “high risk,” an analysis of federal data shows. Although these systems are not necessarily producing unsafe water today – some are, some aren’t – the government fears they could fail under adverse conditions, such as a sudden deterioration in source-water quality. Another 95,000 are served by “medium risk” systems located on 167 reserves.

Combined, that amounts to roughly one-third of the approximately 462,000 people living on reserves – or about 30 communities the size of Walkerton, Ont. In 2000, bacterial contamination in Walkerton’s water system sickened more than 2,300 people and killed seven. Although the Walkerton tragedy prompted wide-ranging regulatory changes across Canada, this hasn’t resulted in safe water for many reserves. Indeed, many First Nations water systems remain in shambolic condition.

During his election campaign last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years. (Data from this summer show 158 drinking-water advisories were in place in 114 First Nations.)

To understand the scope of this undertaking, The Globe pored over federal data and interviewed First Nations water operators and indigenous leaders, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada officials and third-party experts.

Health Canada recommends advisories when microbiological contamination of drinking water is suspected or confirmed and their prevalence has already been widely analyzed. But The Globe also studied an Indigenous and Northern Affairs database called the Integrated Capital Management System, which contains a decade’s worth of risk assessments for individual First Nations water systems across the country. Acquiring it took six months of bureaucratic wrangling, and an appeal to the federal Information Commissioner.

The department’s data suggest that without significant changes to its approach, the federal government risks falling far short of its objective.

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