09/02/2016 12:47 EDT | Updated 09/02/2016 12:59 EDT

Who Can We Hold Accountable For The First Nations Water Crisis?


The First Nations water crisis is beyond a national embarrassment. It should be seen as a national crime that the basic human right to water is seriously at risk in First Nations communities across Canada.

According to a Globe and Mail investigation, and backed up by the government's own data, about 150,000 aboriginal people living on reserve do not have reliable access to a safe supply of drinking water.

Children that are bathed in the available water often end up with painful rashes or other skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Water wells are contaminated with uranium, among other things, including cancer-causing by-products that are used to treat the dirty source water.

As of this summer, there are 158 boil-water advisories in place for 114 First Nation communities and while that may seem startling enough, it does not reveal the full extent of water problems facing First Nations communities. There are reservations that lack basic housing let alone running water, which leaves people relying on overpriced bottled water, cisterns and water brought in on trucks and well water which causes illnesses such as gastrointestinal disorders due to contamination.

Just imagine if 150,000 people in Toronto had no access to clean drinking water.

Criminal charges were filed in the Flint, Michigan water crisis where both current and former state employees were charged with misconduct among other crimes. The problem wasn't fixed for two reasons if we are honest: it's expensive and mainly low-income black people were drinking it.

Another case that immediately came to mind, and was also referenced in the Globe and Mail report, is one near my home. In Walkerton, Ontario 2,300 people fell ill and seven died after breakdowns in the local water system. The region's public health officer later said the catastrophe was probably preventable. A public inquiry was held, people were charged and the government offered compensation to settle a class action lawsuit as well as invested millions in infrastructure to prevent future outbreaks. So southern Ontario has become a very safe place for water.

Not so lucky the 150,000 aboriginals though. Just imagine if 150,000 people in Toronto had no access to clean drinking water. The outcry would be massive and the issue would be addressed immediately no matter the cost.

It is ultimately up to governments to ensure citizens have access to basic necessities. That's what taxes are intended for. And the government of Canada, through complex history, legislation and funding, has specific responsibilities for First Nation communities. They have had many years of information, experience and opportunities to prevent or provide remediation for the water situation but for the most part, they have failed miserably when it comes to aboriginal people.

With the election of the Liberals, many signs indicate it will be a new relationship with the federal government and First Nations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to eliminate all boil-water advisories on reserves within five years, which many leaders are doubtful will happen. While I hope we skeptics are proved wrong and he makes good on that promise, I am also aware of how very basic a promise it is. Think about it. How long would it last that people in southern Ontario were on regular boil-water advisories?

The Government of Canada should launch a comprehensive review into communities with unsafe water, identify the causes, determine the remedies and hold people accountable. Any corporation, individual or group contaminating water or willfully knowing water is poisoning people and letting them drink it should be held criminally responsible.

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I encourage all of you to care if the water crisis for First Nations communities is ended and if people are


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