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Fresh Water for First Nations

By now you’re familiar with water crises internationally. You know that in Africa and South East Asia, for example, there are thousands upon thousands of people who do not have access to clean drinking water. But it might surprise you to find a similar crisis occurs right now in your very own backyard. If you think “crisis” is too extreme a word to use, think again. At this moment, whole communities of people in Canada suffer from contaminated wells and dirty source water, which can lead to a range of major, even fatal, health issues. Long-running response measures have been in place, such as rationing, and boil water advisories, but that does not attack the problem of basic access to clean water, head-on. This type of resource exhaustion (and, consequently, pollution) is not what you would or should expect from a developed country. And we should be ashamed.

There are countless cases (documented by international aid organizations and NGOs, watchdog groups and even corporate companies via their Corporate Responsibility programs) where indigenous people are often promised economic and community development, but nothing in exchange for the extraction of their precious natural resource. This is often the case in developing countries. Here in Canada, not only a developed country but one of the world’s leading nations, at what point will we say this resource exhaustion is too much? First Nation communities in Canada right now and, in many instances over the past decade, have been in a state of water crisis. It begs the question, “Why do we call them ‘First Nations’? What about our posture toward them demonstrates that they are first?”

Water is a renewable resource. However, fresh (drinking) water is not; to think otherwise is very problematic. Just because we have an abundance of water and the hydrological cycle is a resilient global process, this hardly equates to a large reserve of potable water. When we look at places like Ontario, well known for so much surface water, we assume that there is an abundance. But the truth of the matter is that just last year, cities right outside of Toronto experienced severe drought, proving the times and conditions are changing.

Many suggest that we (humans, specifically) can simply adapt to these unprecedentedly severe conditions. But this is a dangerous posture because it often implies that environmental and health conditions can be resolved easily and rapidly. The presumption, for example, that technological innovation always rises to the occasion may be correct, but it will most certainly come at a cost.  Water treatment (filtering and “purifying”), for example, as the quality of surface water continues to diminish, will become more expensive and consequently inaccessible for many. This is all beside the important recognition that we are at risk of reaching points of no return, as groundwater sources are finite.

In other words, sources of potable water can be so exhausted that they cease to further produce drinkable water, which would make adaptation exceptionally difficult. Most of the potable water that we use comes from groundwater, or aquifers. This is water just below the surface and, typically, it is abundant. However, in recent years we have extracted groundwater at unprecedented rates that exceed those needed to restore these sources, which puts our potable water at higher risk of contamination. This is especially the case with water wells, which many First Nation communities rely on. When water wells run dry, they are more susceptible to bacteria and contamination. At this point, even when water is replenished to the well, the contamination remains.  

For many of the First Nations of Canada, potable fresh water has already been exhausted. Clean drinking water is literally being extracted from beneath them and shipped off for sale. The impacts involve insufficient water and a poor quality of water leading to critical health and basic human rights issues. The United Nations General Assembly (UN) has made access to water an international law, primarily in response to similar conditions in undeveloped countries. As a developed, leading nation, it is an embarrassment that we might have to invoke these laws here, domestically. We are often quick to deploy government assistance to neighbors outside of the country amidst resource crises but here at home there is no sense of urgency when the original inhabitants have been unprecedentedly deprived of it. Activists refer to this predatory behavior and idle representation as legal theft. But this is the present reality of the situation and action must be taken immediately, action that more closely resembles the historic approach to environment that the First Nations embody.  


PULL QUOTE: We are often quick to deploy government assistance to neighbors outside of the country amidst resource crises but here at home there is no sense of urgency when the original inhabitants have been unprecedentedly deprived of it.


The situation is quite dire for First Nations. At least 92 communities are under restricted use advisories and presently draw from drinking water systems that threaten their health. In Ontario, for example, the Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory for 20 years. Meanwhile, bottled-water companies and other private enterprises draw a tremendous amount of fresh water from First Nation reserves at the concession of government. Even during severe cases of drought, these companies have been permitted to continue extracting. While this points to a number of issues around the privatization of water, one stands out as it relates to the First Nations—cities and communities are being out-bid by private companies for water taking permits while the community’s basic needs for water are not met.


For example, Nestle’s bottled water operations have gained a reputation for “grabbing up” permits in Canada when municipalities have also bid for the access. For the community, competing with a multinational corporate group is a serious challenge. Meanwhile, this corporate enterprise and other industrial withdrawals from groundwater are responsible for the vulnerability of water reserves and pollution to the environment. Before even considering the direct impacts like these relating to extraction process, there is the problem of producing massive amounts of environmentally costly petroleum products, i.e. the bottles themselves, when the water is often no better quality than tap water.  Yet the bottled water industry continues to grow at incredible rates.


The bottled water industry has experienced exceptional growth in recent years — it is projected to surpass that of the carbonated drinks industry this year. And regulation is out of date. Across North America, especially in Oregon and California, companies like Nestle made large investments in campaigns and lobbying where their permits were contested by local communities (that were also experiencing drought). This is to point out that you can expect private industry to protect its interests, which may include the sustainability of the natural resource but not necessarily the sustainability of the communities. These communities do not always have the resources to fight a now $60-billion industry in these legal or lobbying battles, which highlights the duty of the government to play a more scrupulous role. But this responsibility is not a novel one. In the province of Ontario, for example, more than 10 years ago, we witnessed the failure of the government to monitor and regulate water systems. The water contamination led to tragic and fatal results, as well as a criminal investigation of officials in Walkerton, Ontario.


So what is the national strategy in dealing with water resource strain? Simply put, there is not a very comprehensive plan being executed. Only just this month, the province of Ontario issued a hold on the addition of any bottled water projects while a review of permits and impacts is conducted. Note that this “hold” would not restrict current extraction rates and had little to do with the resource strain affecting First Nation communities. It is still commendable for the province to take the measures, particularly because it signals to more transparency and awareness. But more must be done, especially across all provinces. The alternative is that private enterprise would continue to dictate where a tremendous amount of the natural resource is directed. And presently that is proving unsustainable for a large group of people—more than 100,000 members of First Nations in Canada.  

In order for the government to do more, it must be held accountable. Transparency directly informs accountability. And in this case, particularly in light of the rapidly growing and evolving bottled-water industry, accountability is necessary for regulation to adapt to industry. The bidding process could certainly change. For example, it must be made more equitable for communities who are presently competing with large corporate entities (for a basic right and resource). It is the role of government to represent the interests of the community. So engagement with the First Nations in the process means giving voice to their rights.

Transparency in this process also boosts public awareness more broadly. And in a time when we, in the western world, are systematically detached from the impacts of so much of our consumption, awareness is crucial.  The First Nations embody a very contrasting approach to natural resources — it is a cultural tradition of First Nations to be environmentally aware and conscious of consumption. This makes it all the more ironic, and frankly tragic, that consumption and over-exhaustion of the resource would impact these communities most harshly.

The country is presented with a unique opportunity to learn from the First Nations. Very real consideration of their symbiotic approach to water use could present not only a pivot in policy relating to human rights but also open new doors to innovation. Private industry does not have to be the enemy here. Water technology development can be aligned and purposed with First Nation holistic design. However, in order to do that, First Nations need more leverage in the national dialogue.


Large-scale public awareness campaigns often empower smaller communities’ interest. Awareness of water issues on the local level inform and can be reflective of water issues on the national scale. So increased public awareness benefits all parties here. If Canada were to think globally and act locally on the issue of water, it could potentially turn a real problem into an opportunity. Singapore, for example, nearly 40 years ago experienced a water crisis. Its policy makers made a conscious decision to turn that problem into strategic public educational pieces on water scarcity and conservation. After many years of propaganda, the city-state experienced a cultural shift in posture toward their environment. Singapore is now known as a premier water hub on the international stage. It went from an extreme water deficit, shipping massive amounts of expensive fresh water into the country, to an innovative producer with a potable water surplus today.  


Canada right now allows private companies to export fresh water while it fails to meet the basic needs of First Nations. It is time to find a more sustainable solution. Recently, Ontario has been recognized as a center for some significant water technology development. At the moment of this writing, a national conference is being held in Ontario acknowledging these kinds of advances and to discuss where the country is going in water development. This would be a unique opportunity for leaders to speak with some conviction about the urgency of the First Nations’ crisis and to highlight the historic relationship and stewardship that First Nations have with the environment, emphasizing it as an example to follow. Would it not be truly noble for Canada to be the first western nation to be characterized by a more holistic and sustainable approach to water development? Let us come together and develop the type of public awareness campaign that would permeate and create a motivation to be respectful not only of First Nations, but of the nation’s opportunity. The window is closing soon, but for now it is still open.

Furthermore, increased oversight of government in the process of appropriating water quantity is absolutely necessary. In Elora, Ontario, tests of aquifers will be conducted prior to Nestle being permitted to make new withdrawals projects. This is the right thing to do. But this necessary and precautionary measure is not enough and has not been applied to First Nation communities. While a preventative strategy is strongly advised moving forward (and a commendable first step in Elora’s case), it is only part of the solution for the First Nations. Given the longstanding critical status of so many Canadians, restricting commercial use while finding a solution seems quite logical. Corporate producers of water must pay their fair share, and this is expected to be part of the dialogue between communities, government and private industry. But first, this must be treated like the emergency that it is. To ignore the urgency is abhorrently objectifying to a large number of a specific cultural group in Canada. There is no excuse.

Illustration by Deshi Deng