08/02/2019 16:30 EDT | Updated 08/07/2019 12:53 EDT

Attawapiskat's Unsafe Water Emergency Has Been My Normal For 42 Years

Lack of access to clean water is something that has long existed in this country, and it still does today.

As told to Nicholas Mizera, Perspectives editor, HuffPost Canada

My community of Attawapiskat First Nation has declared a state of emergency. The water is so contaminated that you can’t bathe more than three minutes in it, and we are supposed to avoid rinsing food in it. They cautioned us to open a window for ventilation when running the tap, because the harsh chemicals can become airborne.

And you definitely can’t drink it.

At an emergency meeting held to inform us of the news, band council shared a report they had received two weeks earlier — I don’t know why they sat on it a full two weeks before they notified the community. That said, harmful levels trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAAs), chemical byproducts from the water disinfection process, had been detected in our supply. They can cause cancer, and boiling water does nothing to get rid of them.

Judy Sutherland
Author Adrian Sutherland sits along the Attawapiskat River.

Practically speaking, I don’t think there’s really much of a difference between our recently declared water crisis and the water conditions we’ve lived with in Attawapiskat for as long as I can remember. 

Growing up without water

In the early ‘80s, when I was four or five years old, there were 16 of us living in my grandparents’ cabin. The homes in Attawapiskat didn’t have running water at all, only the hospital did. The community had started laying pipes in the late ’70s to bring water and sewer to the non-native people. Back then, only teachers and hospital staff had the privilege of having access to running water. For the longest time, I believed that only “white people” were allowed to have running water. That’s the way it was, and the way I understood it.

People just don’t have a clue there are tens of thousands of Canadians who have no access to clean water.

Most of the water we collected for drinking and washing was drawn from the river or lake. In some cases, we’d also collect water from ditches for the laundry. In winter we melted snow, and kept a hole open in the ice on the river so we could access water year-round. Tap water didn’t arrive to our homes until the late ’90s, and it took about a year to tie everyone into the water and sewer lines. The house I was living in finally got running water in 1998 — only 21 years ago. Today, at nearly 42 years old, I have lived half my life without running water. 

Right from the beginning, we were told not to drink the water coming into our homes. It was harsh because of the chemicals used to treat it — so harsh you could smell the water coming from the tap. When you did laundry in it, all your whites would turn yellow or brown. We continued to draw water from the river for drinking and cleaning.

Adrian Sutherland
Water dispensaries in Attawapiskat First Nation serve 2,500 residents.

In the last 10 years, water “dispensaries” (reverse-osmosis water treatment plants) were installed in the community. Obtaining drinking water now means trekking to one of two facilities that the 2,500 people living in Attawapiskat all share. It’s an almost-daily chore lugging around four, five or more 10-gallon jugs. The only other option is purchasing water in bottles from the local Northern Store, which is too expensive for anyone to afford for any substantial period of time.

‘Normal’ way of life

For my entire life — right up to this very day — we have never had clean water flowing from the taps in our homes in Attawapiskat. I grew up thinking this was normal, and never really thought much about it. It’s what I had become accustomed to. In recent years, though, I have had the opportunity to travel to other cities with my band, Midnight Shine, and I now see how accessible water is everywhere else. I struggle now with just how not normal conditions are in Attawapiskat.

Combining all these stressors, you feel defeated, and you start to wear down mentally.

The sore stomach I have back home disappears when I’m out touring — I can’t shake the feeling it has something to do with the water. I see people walking around cities like Vancouver where we just performed, and I think about the fact they don’t have to worry about things like contaminated water. They seem happy and can spend their time doing other things for their family instead of having to fetch water every day. I can’t even imagine what would happen if a city like Vancouver — or any urban centre — had a contamination issue with their water. You can be damn sure the problem would be dealt with immediately, instead of being neglected for decades.

People just don’t have a clue there are tens of thousands of Canadians who have no access to clean water — many of us who have never had access. There are still more than 50 boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities across Canada, and that number doesn’t even count the communities like Attawapiskat whose water can’t be made safe by boiling. 

Housing shortage another challenge

Contaminated water is just one problem on top of the other challenges Attawapiskat is already facing. We have a housing shortage that sees on average one home for every seven people, or as many as 13 people sharing a dwelling. My family is currently homeless — my wife and kids live in a shack that I built as we prepare to construct a new house. Our previous house was so mouldy and unhealthy to live in that we chose to demolish it with an excavator and start over. We are now building our own house, without the help of a mortgage.

Adrian Sutherland
The temporary “shack” I built for my family to live in for the summer until our new home is completed. The pressure's on for me to finish before winter, so I'm working every spare minute I have.

This is another thing most Canadians don’t know — mortgages that are available through the Canadian banking system aren’t typically available to homeowners in the North. This puts remote First Nation communities at a disadvantage, because banks aren’t willing to take on the risk. I know this firsthand because I have been trying for the past year to secure a mortgage in order to build our own home. But even with my businesses and a growing music career, every bank I approached still turned me down. This adds another barrier to those families who are working hard to improve their living conditions, and makes it really hard to try and get ahead in life.  

Feeling defeated

Combining all these stressors, you feel defeated, and you start to wear down mentally. As a father, it makes me feel like I haven’t done enough for my family. This situation has taken a real toll on my wife, Judy, who is one of the strongest people I know. When the water situation came to light, she broke down and cried. She honestly feels like leaving the North, and has said that more than a few times already. My youngest boy, Junior, says he doesn’t want to live here anymore, either. This crisis is testing everyone’s resolve.

All I want is to be able to give my family a comfortable and safe home, provide for them, and make sure they always have what they need. It’s easy to start to wonder if we made the right choices by staying here in Attawapiskat.

Adrian Sutherland
My family.

Even in the face of all of this, it would still be very difficult for my wife and I to leave. We have a business, debts and family. It’s where my grandkids are. It’s my home. But this water contamination has really pushed people to the brink of wanting to give up and leave, and you can’t blame them. Families are starting to talk seriously about uprooting and leaving. This is their home, too.

Turning around a grim reality

When you look at the current water emergency in Attawapiskat, it’s the result of failures on all levels of governance. Part of it is the federal and provincial government’s chronic underfunding of capital projects in Indigenous communities. On a local level, I feel more could have been done to secure the capital needed for new and better water infrastructure. There is no one thing, no one political party, no one community leader, who is responsible for the dire situation that Attawapiskat is now living with. It has been many decades of collective neglect, on all sides.

And so here we are today.

Adrian Sutherland
The Attawapiskat River is often the preferred source of water for drinking and washing.

I’d like to see all the political parties in Canada, regardless of who is in power, come together to address the water issue, once and for all. Instead of blaming each other and avoiding action. I’d like to see a plan in place for Attawapiskat, and then for every other First Nation in Canada that is currently without drinking water. Realistically, I know it’s not going to happen in the next few months. It’s no small feat. They need to dig up all the aging infrastructure, all the pipes, and replace them. In some cases, they also need to locate new sources of clean water for the long-term. To fix Attawapiskat alone, we’re looking at two or three years minimum.

In the interim, we need a reliable source of clean drinking water. It’s not unrealistic to expect a mobile water treatment centre to be built, like the types mining companies use in remote areas to keep clean water flowing from their taps. Exposure to harmful chemicals can be limited by subsidizing water filters, which can run in a range from $2,000 to $12,000 per home in Attawapiskat. It would be a start. 

Indigenous Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan and his team visited our community two weeks ago. His office reportedly said $1.5 million has been approved for repairs to our existing treatment plant, and they’re planning on flying in drinking water because people are starting to lose faith in the increasingly dilapidated dispensaries. It is getting harder to trust the drinking water. 

I think people need to be aware this is the grim reality in Canada. It’s 2019, and many people in the North still live in third-world conditions. Lack of access to clean water is something that has long existed in this country, and it still does today. Including right here in Attawapiskat.

We’re waiting.

Adrian Sutherland sings about resilience and the difficult living conditions facing Attawapiskat in Midnight Shine’s “Leather Skin.”

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