Of all the United Nations days that OPSEU/SEFPO marks, World Water Day, March 22, is one of the most important ones. Why? We need water to stay alive. Second, needlessly and tragically, a chronic lack of safe drinking water directly affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people.
There is perhaps nothing more telling in terms of the federal government’s neo-colonialist attitude towards First Nations than its chronic inaction on ensuring every single reserve in Canada has a constant and ample supply of clean drinking water.
The federal government acknowledges there are 58 long-term drinking-water advisories in First Nations across Canada. This shameful figure flies in the face of a 2010 UN resolution recognizing the human right to water as “essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.”
When the Trudeau government came to power in 2015, it committed to fixing the water crisis by 2021, but it has failed to keep its promise. A Globe and Mail analysis published earlier this month indicates that two Ontario First Nations – Shamattawa and Shoal Lake 40 – have been on long-term water advisories for more than two decades, while a further 10 have gone without clean water for 10 years.
Neskantaga First Nation, 450 km north of Thunder Bay, has been under boil advisory since 1995 – the longest in Canada. Think about that for a moment. Residents in their early 20s have never had access to safe drinking water. Last December, the community was once again evacuated for two months because of problems with its drinking water treatment plant.
The Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong) First Nation, 100 km northwest of Kenora, has experienced mental and physical health issues for decades owing to toxic mercury levels in the nearby English-Wabigoon River. Dryden Chemicals dumped mercury into the system between 1962 and 1970, resulting in some 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents suffering from mercury toxicity. It’s a particularly disgraceful example of profits poisoning people.
In a statement released on March 18, 2021, the Canadian government said it was investing $69.5 million; the Ontario government, $16.9 million; and Zhiibaahaasing First Nation Chief Irene Kells, on behalf of Ontario Indigenous communities, $5.8 million, for clean water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure projects in First Nations across the province. While this overdue money is certainly needed and welcome, reliable means of getting the funds to the communities must first be put in place.
OPSEU/SEFPO has been an active voice in the struggle to get clean water to First Nations. We’ve been talking about this scandal for years and held World Water Day events. Notably, in 2017 the Indigenous Mobilization Team assembled water protectors to a highly successful “Water is Life” symposium. In 2018, the Indigenous Circle, in partnership with Indigenous water keepers, presented a resolution at Convention calling for action to protect water.
This year, the Indigenous Circle is extremely proud to present a virtual World Water Day Forum to take place this Sunday, March 21, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. To register, please contact the Equity Unit at email@example.com with your name and local number.
The Indigenous Circle continues to lobby government to end its chronic foot-dragging and get clean water to every Canadian. It goes without saying that OPSEU/SEFPO’s leadership and membership support the Indigenous Circle 100 per cent.
The theme of World Water Day 2021 is “valuing water.” For the majority of Ontarians who have never gone without safe drinking water, this is a lesson we must learn. It’s also one that governments must learn, not just when they fail to ensure communities have clean water, but when they let multinationals like Nestlé buy Ontario spring water for five cents per 100 litres.
We must start taking water management seriously. Because not only does everyone need clean water now, but we also must make sure everyone continues to have access to it into the future, whether in Shamattawa or Shoal Lake 40 or Sudbury or Scarborough. Because our most precious of commodities must be for people – not profit.
OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice-President/Treasurer