As a federal election recedes from view, nothing has changed for the First Nations communities across Canada that are without access to clean drinking water. Last week, in Ontario, there were 36 long-term and 16 short-term drinking-water advisories in effect. And as experts told TVO.org recently, a lack of an advisory doesn’t necessarily mean that a community has access to clean, running drinking water. While the major parties campaigned on eliminating drinking-water advisories, the election priorities outlined by the Chiefs of Ontario — which supports and advocates for the 133 First Nations in Ontario — were far broader.
This week, TVO.org spoke with Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare about the Chiefs of Ontario’s drinking-water priorities; the discussion (or lack thereof) of drinking-water issues in the federal election; and the effect of bad water on First Nations children. With his election as Ontario regional chief in June, Hare marked his 36th year in politics — part of a career that saw him go from band councillor in his home community of M’Chigeeng First Nation to grand council chief of Anishinabek Nation.
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“Water is for everyone — all colours of people,” Hare says. “And we should be treating the water systems in the whole country the same, the same, the same, the same.”
During the recent federal campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touched on long-term drinking-water advisories briefly in the English-language debate, and the issue came up in the French-language debate; NDP leader Jagmeet Singh visited Neskantaga First Nation, which has been under a boil-water advisory for 26 years.
“I bet I am safe to say that maybe an hour, maybe two hours in the whole campaign was spent on drinking water,” Hare says. During the leadup to the election, Hare says, he was invited to a Zoom call with Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. He initially declined but later changed his mind. “He has been around for a while, and so have I, and so I said [on the call], ‘Why, after all these years, are you calling me now?’” Hare recalls, adding that another person on the call echoed the sentiment.
While Hare says the current government has made progress on drinking water, he believes it hasn’t happened fast enough. “The country is talking about putting in new pipelines coast to coast to coast, but what about the water?” he says. “I truly believe the pipelines can wait. It’s these underground water lines that are aging out fast, and we [as First Nations] have to live it. In the municipalities, they are upgraded all the time.” Some homes in First Nations communities lack water pipes altogether; in Six Nations of the Grand River, for instance, only about 12 per cent of homes are connected to the water-treatment plant.
One of the Chiefs of Ontario’s priorities for drinking water, Hare says, is repealing the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act and replacing it with First Nations-led legislation. The Assembly of First Nations has repeatedly called for the act to be repealed and replaced, pointing to its “weak protection” of treaty rights, failure to acknowledge First Nations’ jurisdiction over water, and the possibility of providing “unreasonably broad powers” to outside actors to control a First Nation’s decisions over water. Hare also called for a moratorium on bulk water exports; in 2018, the Guardian reported that Nestlé was extracting millions of litres of waters daily on Six Nations of the Grand River treaty land.
Hare would like to see the minister of Indigenous services appoint a First Nations leader as a deputy, so that First Nations would have a political voice in the ministry. “I wish that would happen on my time,” he says.
Throughout his career, Hare has advocated for First Nations children and critiqued the non-Indigenous child-welfare system in Canada — a system that has, over generations, systematically removed First Nations children from their families and communities, including through the Sixties Scoop. A lack of clean water, Hare says, can put children at risk of being removed from their homes.
“We love our kids just like any other parent: we educate them, we bathe them, we clean them, but when there are years of [drinking-water advisories], rules are followed, but what does that mean?” he says. “When we send our kids to school in not a clean way, they call the Children’s Aid Society, saying, ‘Their clothes are not clean.’ So what do you do? If we keep them home, they call the society too.”
Hare speaks of the burden that has fallen to First Nations children — to advocate and fight for clean water in their own communities. While children are taking their message to Ottawa, he says, “You don’t see the people of Sudbury doing that or the people of Sault Ste. Marie or Thunder Bay – so why do we have to do it?” He says that he wishes Canadian politicians, including the prime minister, will one day stand alongside Autumn Peltier, a teenage activist for clean water and the chief water commissioner of Anishinabek Nation.
As Canada marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, on Thursday, Hare reflects on the idea of reconciliation: “I don’t wholeheartedly believe in that word. Truth needs to come first … A lot of people think we want the world – we don’t. But we’ve been through hell.”
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