Tainted water ‘jeopardizing health’ of First Nations children, families rights group says

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Discrimination against First Nations people is a “legal fact” in Canada when it comes to safe drinking water, says a new report by Human Rights Watch.

The international, independent human rights organization released its report in Toronto on Tuesday calling for “urgent steps” by the federal and provincial government to resolve more than 100 boil-water advisories in First Nations across Canada.

first nations water conference

Human Rights Watch and First Nations chiefs of Ontario have released a report on problems that occur due to the lack of potable water in indigenous communities. Most of the 89 communities affected are in Ontario. (Nazima Walji/CBC News)

Human Rights Watch investigated the water problems in five First Nations in Ontario — the province with the most boil-water advisories in the country: Shoal Lake 40, Neskantaga, Grassy Narrows, Batchewana and Six Nations of the Grand River.

“Tainted water and broken systems on Ontario’s First Nations reserves are jeopardizing health, burdening parents and caregivers and exacerbating problems on reserves,” said Amanda Klasing, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

Klasing said she was surprised to see the way daily practices such as bathing or preparing food for infants is altered when people don’t trust the water from their taps to be safe.

First Nations water conference

A woman blesses water at a conference to release the report, which calls for a First Nations-led commission to oversee capital investments in water infrastructure on reserves. (Nazima Walji/CBC News)

“It’s really difficult to draw a direct causation between dirty water and skin conditions, but what was really clear is there’s a change in hygiene behaviour,” she said, adding that she saw “extreme measures” taken by parents and caregivers to limit exposure to contaminants.

The specific problem with the water system or source is different in each community, but the underlying legislative and funding framework that allows the problems to persist, for decades, is the same, Klasing said.

‘Legal protections’ lacking

“First Nations do not have the same legal protections for safe drinking water as Canadians living off reserve, so in legal fact, there is a discrimination in the types of protections,” she said.

Carolyn Bennett

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett studies water samples earlier this year in Neskantaga First Nation where the Liberals have committed to building a new water plant. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Safeguarding the human right to clean drinking water will require funding, according to the report.

Klasing said recent commitments from the federal government show there is a political will to make changes, but she said the amount budgeted falls short of the government’s own calculations of how much is needed in a 2011 report by Indigenous Affairs.

“Although there has been some progress and lots of promises, there are far too many Indigenous people still living — and dying — in poverty in this country today,” said the Assembly of First Nation’s Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.

Human Rights Watch is calling for a First Nations-led commission to oversee capital investments in water infrastructure on reserves.

“Our hope is that we’re leading towards a system that allows these [funding] commitments to be tracked and we’re able to see that Canada over time is progressively realizing its human rights obligations,” Klasing said.

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Tainted water ‘jeopardizing health’ of First Nations children, families rights group says

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