Toronto Star

What do you not get about water issues?

- MELISSA MBARKI CONTRIBUTO­R Melissa Mbarki is a policy analyst and outreach coordinato­r at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

When the prime minister addressed onreserve water advisories in last week’s English leaders’ debate, he made it sound like the water issue was well in hand. The casual way that Canadians all the way up to and including the prime minister talk about First Nations water issues shows that the country still does not get it.

Even in the unlikely event that all water advisories are lifted, First Nations people will still be struggling to access this necessity of life.

Growing up on the Muskowekwa­n First Nation reserve in Saskatchew­an, I dealt with water issues throughout my life. My grandparen­ts did not have running water until the late 1980s. They had huge rain barrels that would be filled via water truck once a week.

When my grandparen­ts moved to a home with running water, they encountere­d a new issue: contaminat­ion. All homes on the reserve had high levels of iron, among other contaminat­es, giving the water an odour and yellow color. We used a product called “Iron Out” for laundry so it would not turn clothing yellow.

It’s easy to imagine what this water would do if used for bathing and cooking. We boiled water for cooking and always had blue jugs for drinking. We rationed what water we used per week, often having to choose between either laundry or cleaning.

I was 10 when I developed severe skin rashes. I visited various doctors and specialist­s who prescribed a cocktail of antibiotic­s and ointments. The relief was temporary, at best. I was traumatize­d by the experience. There are now antibiotic­s that prevent the bad reactions, but the water challenges persist.

There are many impacts that have not been captured in the shallow debate about First Nations’ water supplies. Far too many communitie­s make do with band-aid fixes, like bottled water. Ottawa focuses on easy solutions, highlighti­ng the short-term water advisories as a public marker of “real” achievemen­t.

Many First Nations require a comprehens­ive infrastruc­ture overhaul. Few reserves have homes connected to centralize­d water mains. Many rely on trucked water or individual cisterns. These tanks are not much different from the rain barrels my grandparen­ts had in the late 1980s. This is far from sufficient as water is easily contaminat­ed during the transport process.

Every spring, we cleaned out the cisterns connected our homes. On one occasion, we removed a dead cat from my grandparen­t’s cistern. To this day, thinking about our family drinking water from this contaminat­ed cistern makes me sick to my stomach. I am angered that the narrow focus on boil water advisories has made Canada accept such unacceptab­le standards as a solution for First Nation reserves.

Poor water delivery contribute­d to their COVID-19 outbreak. When handwashin­g and cleaning your household are restricted by your access to water, an outbreak of infectious disease is more likely.

By contrast, I worked with an Alberta county that installed potable water services for rural non-Indigenous homes and businesses. The scope of this project exceeded the number of homes on every First Nations in Canada, stayed on budget, was completed in four years, and provided worry-free, reliable water supplies. Solutions are possible, but there is a lack of will to help First Nations.

For decades, Ottawa has over-simplified Indigenous issues, often reducing complex infrastruc­ture, political and legal issues to simple statements. This is exemplifie­d by the prime minister announcing with sudden confidence that his government would eliminate the Indian Act. Yet he has failed to appreciate how that idea worries many First Nations people who don’t know what the prime minister has in mind.

Canada needs to address the water issue and it must do so now. Eliminatin­g water advisories is only part of the challenge — the easiest part. First Nations deserve nothing more or less than other Canadians take for granted: safe, clean drinking water, delivered reliably and directly to our homes. Is it too much to ask?

In this federal election, it appears as though the leaders and political parties still do not understand the problem, making their promises meaningles­s on First Nations reserves.

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