An Abundance of Water, but None to Drink for First Nations in Canada

17 mars 2021

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An entire generation of youth in Neskantaga First Nation, a community located 1,140 kilometers north of Toronto, has grown up without access to clean drinking water. For 25 years, the community’s tap water has not been safe to drink; residents had to boil the water before using it. After an oily substance was discovered in the water system in October 2020, authorities shut off the water altogether and evacuated the community so repairs could be completed.[i]

The residents of Nesktanga were allowed to return to their homes in December, but the community’s boil-water advisory remained in place.[ii] The events unfolding in Neskantaga are deeply upsetting, but not unique.

Almost 5 percent of the population of Canada identifies as Indigenous, of which First Nations constitute the largest group.[iii] There are over 630 First Nations communities in Canada, and Neskantaga is one of 57 First Nations communities currently facing a long-term drinking water advisory (L-T DWA). This means that their tap water is not safe to drink.[iv] L-T DWAs range from “boil water” advisories, instructing residents to boil water for at least one minute before consuming, to “do not use” advisories, signaling that residents should not use their tap water for any reason.[v]

The water crisis in First Nations communities in Canada is a perennial problem. Despite having a highly advanced economy and 20% of the world’s fresh water, Canada is failing to provide clean drinking water to the original inhabitants of the land. In doing so, the Canadian government has failed to protect the health of First Nations communities.

To resolve the water crisis, the Canadian government should institute federal legislation to ensure the distribution of clean water in First Nations communities. The government must also commit to working with communities to develop sustainable solutions by establishing First Nations-owned water authorities.

Colonial Legacies

For centuries, Indigenous communities in Canada have faced violence and mistreatment at the hands of European settlers and, later, the Canadian government. In the name of assimilation, Indigenous peoples have been killed, kidnapped, stripped of their territory, and faced “cultural genocide”.[vi],[vii],[viii]

Systemic racism continues to fuel the water crisis today.[ix] The current reserve system was established by the 1876 Indian Act, which designated specific areas of the country as “reserves” for First Nations people.[x] First Nations communities are therefore regulated federally, not provincially. This means they receive less money than provincially governed municipalities.[xi] This designation also means that the water legislation of the province or territory in which the reserves are located does not apply to the reserve.

In fact, there is no legislation that dictates how the federal government must provide clean water on reserves, nor to which communities.[xii] Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that this lack of legislation inhibits planning and delivery of federal services to First Nations communities.[xiii] Without a legislative base, bureaucratic confusion and roadblocks abound.

Government Promises

During his 2015 election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to lift all L-T DWAs by March 2021. Now in his second term, Trudeau has admitted that his government will not reach that target.[xiv] So far, they have ended 99 L-T DWAs in First Nations communities.[xv] These efforts are considerable but insufficient.

There are still 57 First Nations communities living with L-T DWAs. Even if all L-T DWAs are lifted in 2021, the problem is likely to persist because of the government’s uncoordinated, incomplete measures. In some communities, the government provides funding for new water treatment plants, but not to operate them or install the necessary piping to distribute the water. These communities technically have clean drinking water, but in practice cannot access it.

Some First Nations communities also live with short- or medium-term advisories that do not fall under the government’s plan to lift long-term ones.[xvi] To effectively tackle the problem, the federal government must create legislation – together with First Nations groups – to establish where, when, and how the government is responsible for providing clean drinking water. This legislation would give the government a clear path to follow and create a system of accountability. Such legislation would also give First Nations groups a stronger legal basis when defending their right to clean water.

Local Ownership and a Viable Solution

In Atlantic Canada, First Nations communities are joining forces to tackle the water crisis themselves by creating the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA) to reclaim control of their water systems.[xvii] This is the first water authority owned and operated by First Nations communities in Canada, and it represents a comprehensive, long-term solution to a decades-old problem.

Over the next two years, the new Water Authority will take over the management of local water systems and hire local First Nations people. This style of water authority offers a sustainable solution for First Nations communities to control their own resources, provide training and employment to local residents, and ensure the safety of their drinking water.

The AFNWA presents an opportunity for the federal government and First Nations communities to work together to create policies that can be used throughout the country. Given that this is the first water authority of its kind, there are bound to be challenges. Additionally, it is not a one-size-fits-all project. Atlantic Canada has specific needs and resources – what works there may not work elsewhere due to geography, cultural factors, and local resources.

The federal government should nevertheless use the AFNWA as a model to build a set of policies that can be adapted to other communities. The decision to create a locally owned water authority, however, rests with the First Nations communities themselves. First Nations communities have suffered the consequences of racist governmental policies for decades. For local water authorities to succeed, First Nations communities must be the key leaders of the project, supported – but not overtaken – by the federal government.

Changes upstream, results downstream

An entire generation of children have grown up without access to clean water in one of the richest countries in the world. Rather than funding incomplete or unusable projects, the Canadian government should focus on concrete, inclusive, long-term solutions.

First, the federal government should enact legislation defining its responsibility to provide clean water to First Nations communities. Second, the Canadian government should support the creation of First Nations-owned and operated water authorities based on the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority.

Everyone in Canada should have access to clean drinking water. The federal government has a responsibility to protect this fundamental human right. By listening and learning from First Nations communities, the government has the opportunity to finally make this right a reality.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

[i] Holly McKenzie-Sutter, “Remaining Neskantaga First Nations Residents Evacuated amid Tainted Water Crisis,” Global News, October 25, 2020, accessed on January 21, 2021,

[ii] Olivia Stefanovich, “Members of Neskantaga Come Home Today to Boil Water Advisory,” CBC News, December 18, 2020, accessed on January 21, 2021,

[iii] “Indigenous Peoples and Communities,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, December 04, 2017, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[iv] “Ending Long-term Drinking Water Advisories,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, February 17, 2020, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[v] “About Drinking Water Advisories,” Government of Canada, October 01, 2018, accessed on February 19, 2021,

[vi] “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, accessed on February 19, 2021,, 133.

[vii] “The Residential School System,” Indigenous Foundations, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[viii] “Sixties Scoop,” Indigenous Foundations, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[ix] Jody Porter, “’Apartheid System’ of Clean Water Access Evident in Neskantaga First Nation, NDP MPP Says,” CBC News, October 27, 2020, accessed on January 19, 2021,

[x] “Indian Act,” Justice Laws Website, November 27, 2020, accessed on December 07, 2020.

[xi] Jane Gerster and Krista Hessey, “Why Some First Nations Still Don’t Have Clean Drinking Water – despite Trudeau’s Promise,” Global News, October 03, 2019, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[xii] Jamin Mike and Christopher Cheung, “The Water Crisis in First Nations Communities: An Election Explainer,” The Tyee, October 17, 2019, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[xiii] Kyle Edwards, “This First Nation Is Getting Clean Tap Water for the First Time in 25 Years,” Macleans, January 21, 2019, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[xiv] Olivia Stefanovich, “Indigenous Services Minister to Acknowledge Liberals Won’t Meet Promised Drinking Water Targets,” CBC News, December 02, 2020, accessed on December 07, 2020.

[xv] Olivia Stefanovich, “Indigenous Services Minister to Acknowledge Liberals Won’t Meet Promised Drinking Water Targets,” CBC News, December 02, 2020, accessed on December 07, 2020,

[xvi] Jane Gerster and Krista Hessey, “Why Some First Nations Still Don’t Have Clean Drinking Water – despite Trudeau’s Promise,” Global News, October 03, 2019, accessed on December 07, 2020.

[xvii] Michael Tutton, “Indigenous Communities in Atlantic Canada Create Water Authority, to Be up and Running by 2022,” The Globe and Mail, June 23, 2020, accessed on December 07, 2020,

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Chloe Bray

Chloe Bray completed her B.A. in International Relations, Latin American Studies, and Spanish at the University of Toronto. She is currently completing her M.A. in International Security at Sciences Po and is also studying Publishing at Ryerson University. She is interested in the intersection of media and policy.