Water Infrastructure in First Nations Communities

Author: Stephanie Adams

My name is Stephanie Adams, and I am in my first year of Engineering at Western.  I am currently first year rep for the UES, and outside of Engineering I am involved in the university as first year rep on the First Nations Student Association.  One of my passions is increasing education rates for Indigenous youth, particularly increasing the amount of Indigenous Peoples in Engineering.  At CDE 2015 I was very fortunate to connect with other students from across Canada, and hear about many Indigenous Outreach programs in Engineering at various universities.

I had the opportunity to attend a session on Water Infrastructure in First Nations Communities, which was presented by Irving LeBlanc, the Special Advisor on Infrastructure for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), an engineer from the class of 1971 at University of Waterloo.  Firstly, he mentioned two United Nations declarations, The Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and The Human Right to Water.  When declarations such as these have been established, why are the Indigenous Peoples of Canada living without access to clean drinking water?  It is also important to note, that everyone living in Canada are treaty people, since the issues surrounding treaties concern everyone and treaty rights and obligations are applicable to everyone living on this land.  First Nations People have the right to approve or deny the happenings on their territory, and it is important to consult First Nations on all projects affecting the land.

Water specifically is a major issue concerning First Nations; most treaties do not explicitly refer to water in them, the right to water was understood.  Shoal Lake 40 is a First Nations community which has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years. When the city of Winnipeg’s population was rapidly increasing, they were in need of another source of water.  The municipality of Winnipeg chose to solve this problem by diverting water without the permission of Shoal Lake 40.  The redirection of water diverted clean water towards Winnipeg, and dirty water towards the reservation. This also turned Shoal Lake 40 into a man-made island, removing people from outside access. Unfortunately Shoal Lake 40 is not a unique case; as of January 2015, 126 First Nations in Canada were without potable water, and Ontario accounts for 40% of First Nations drinking water advisories.

In 1998, the Canadian government created a plan to restrict spending in order to cope with the recession, and a 2% cap was implemented on First Nations spending, which was said to be temporary measures, however the 2% cap is still in existence.  It was promised to First Nations leaders that if they agreed to the temporary 2% cap, more investment in First Nations infrastructure would be implemented as the deficit diminished.  In his election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to lift the 2% cap, and to eliminate all water advisories within 5 years.

Improvement in living conditions is slowing progressing, and will continue to progress with the lift on the 2% cap, and Justin Trudeau’s mission to eliminate all water advisories.  It is important to educate the general population on these issues, and to have engineers dedicated and interested in working with First Nations communities to improve infrastructure and living conditions.