What lifting boil-water advisories solves — and what it doesn’t

According to recent counts, there are 43 long-term water advisories and 14 short-term advisories in Ontario. What does that mean, and do the numbers tell the whole story?
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Sep 17, 2021
Stewart Redsky, former chief of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, in the community's water-storage in 2015. A new water-treatment plant became fully operational this week. (John Woods/CP)

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In the English-language federal leaders’ debate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the following statement about boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities: “When we came into office, there were 105 long-term boil-water advisories. We lifted 109 of them.” How is that possible?

Because, as advisories have been lifted, more have taken their place. Dozens remain: as of late August, there were 51 long-term drinking-water advisories related to public water systems on First Nations reserves, including 43 in Ontario. As of Thursday, there were also 34 short-term advisories, 14 of them in Ontario.

During the 2015 election campaign, Trudeau promised to end all long-term boil-water advisories within five years. Elected with a majority that year, the Liberals chose March 2021 as their deadline. By October 2020, after the Liberals had been reduced to a minority government, Trudeau began hedging on that timeline, and in December, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller conceded that the government would not meet it, citing a range of factors, including pandemic-related construction delays. 

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Canada’s promises to make good on its responsibility to provide clean water in First Nations communities date back more than 30 years. In 1995, for instance, the ministry then known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada committed to remedying all deficient water systems on First Nations reserves by 2004. 

Ahead of Monday’s election, TVO.org spoke with experts about drinking-water advisories, the water-related issues less commonly addressed by government, and the major parties’ plans to respond to water crises in First Nations communities. 

What’s a drinking-water advisory?

Drinking-water advisories warn people about water that’s either unsafe or potentially unsafe. In a First Nation, the chief and council have the authority to issue and lift advisories. Advisories are issued when there are problems with a water system, such as an equipment failure or a lack of trained staff. There are three types: boil-water advisories, do-not-consume advisories, and do-not-use advisories, with boil-water advisories being most common. 

Boil-water advisories usually indicate that water is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses. They require water to be brought to a rolling boil for at least a minute and then cooled before drinking or otherwise consuming (for example, in ice cubes or through cooking). Do-not-consume advisories are used when water is contaminated with substances, such as lead, that cannot be removed through boiling. This water cannot be ingested, but it can be used by adults and older children for bathing. Do-not-use advisories can mean the water contains chemicals or toxins that are harmful through any skin contact. Such water cannot be used for any reason, including bathing. 

“Sometimes we even hear policymakers using the terms [boil-water advisory and drinking-water advisory] interchangeably, and that’s not what we should be doing,” says Corinna Dally-Starna, a PhD candidate at the Queen’s University School of Environmental Studies, whose research focus is the role of engineering and project management in drinking-water infrastructure in Indigenous communities. She previously managed water and wastewater portfolios for the Correctional Service of Canada. “Not every drinking-water advisory is a boil-water advisory.”

Advisories are considered long-term when they’ve been in place for more than a year.

In February, the auditor general issued a report assessing the government’s progress on its promise to end all long-term drinking-water advisories. The report highlighted the existence of a variety of issues, including recurring short-term advisories and the use of “interim measures” to lift some advisories. Of the 100 long-term drinking-water advisories lifted between 2015 and 2020, 15 were lifted using such measures, which can include water-infrastructure repairs

According to the report, the average annual risk rating of communities’ public water systems did not improve between the 2014-15 and 2019-20 fiscal years. In 2014-15, 43 per cent of assessed systems were ranked either high- or medium-risk, which can indicate “major deficiencies that need to be addressed.” Five years later, that percentage remained the same.

Agenda segment, September 15, 2021: Indigenous issues at the ballot box

Melanie Debassige, executive director of the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC) — which provides advisory services to First Nations in Ontario, including around water and wastewater systems — says the difficulty of procuring parts for water-treatment plants is one aspect of the problem. “If you need a part, and you have to order it, and it’s coming from the U.S. or another country and then getting shipped to the north, that’s a challenge,” she says. “People don’t think of the complexity. [They think], ‘Oh, I could go to Walmart or Canadian Tire to pick that up,’ but that’s not how it works.” 

But, she says, while communities face common barriers to accessing clean water, there are also solutions. One proposed by OFNTSC is to build and manage a central parts warehouse and use a project-management system to keep track of the life-cycle of parts and repair them before they fail, she says. Currently, First Nations source their equipment, such as filtration pieces and chemicals, on their own, explains Glen Goodman, the corporation’s director of engineering and infrastructure services. “We envision, in the near future – through the oversight of the OFNTSC and support of the government of the day – that we’ll be able to centralize that,” he says. “And the big gain will not only be the sustainability of these plants, [but] operating without interruptions or having to go on boil-water advisories because they can’t find a component.” 

Why isn’t lifting drinking-water advisories enough?

Indigenous experts and leaders have long said, though, that the lifting of long-term advisories won’t necessarily mean that Indigenous communities have reliable access to clean running water.

Looking only at advisories creates a “warped understanding” of drinking-water issues, says Dawn Martin-Hill, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River and a professor at McMaster University in Indigenous studies and the Department of Anthropology. When it comes to issues affecting Indigenous communities, she adds: “There’s always a very superficial view of the extent of the problem, why the problem exists, and what really needs to happen to fix it. It doesn’t sound good on the campaign trail if you talk about the larger issues.” 

Many people who live on reserves rely on private wells — the water quality of which is not captured by the advisory system. And some communities may have a treatment plant but not have access to safe drinking water due to such issues as a lack of water pipes. 

Six Nations, for instance, has a “state of the art” treatment plant, says Martin-Hill, but it’s underfunded and largely held together by the knowledge of one water operator, who is now training his son. Only about 12 per cent of households are connected to it; many homes do not have water pipes. And, she adds, many wells on the reserve are contaminated and therefore not an option.

So most residents truck in their water and buy it in bottles, says Martin-Hill, who is leading a research project on water quality in Six Nations and Lubicon Lake Band of Little Buffalo, in Alberta. For a family of four, water-truck delivery costs about $200 every two weeks; add to that $90 for the waste truck to come every two weeks and the cost of buying bottled water. A family can easily spend more than $600 per month on basic water needs, yet “we get accused of getting everything for free,” she says. Six Nations is not currently subject to an advisory. 

Agenda segment, December 11, 2020: Why is Ottawa breaking its water-advisory promise?

In some communities, members must rely on water trucks to bring treated water to cisterns near their homes; in others, members need to go to a centralized distribution station and carry water back home in containers, says Dally-Starna. According to the auditor general, a third of households on reserves rely on wells or cisterns or lack running water altogether. The use of cisterns instead of pipes has been linked to increased risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and been shown not to provide enough water for residents’ daily needs. “From where [water] leaves the water-treatment plant to when it’s finally used — at all of these points — there are significant risks for contamination,” Dally-Starna says. 

In a November 2020 article, Dally-Starna wrote that the federal government’s focus on long-term advisories leaves out other pressing issues, such as short-term advisories, a lack of running water, and the anticipated effects of climate change on source water. “The perception that with the removal of all long-term drinking-water advisories, all Indigenous communities — and all the members of those Indigenous communities — will actually be water-secure is a misconception,” she says. Research has also shown that Canadian media tends to focus on government responses to drinking-water issues rather than on preventative measures such as source-water protection. 

“When the government defines the parameters and the narrative, and then the media picks up on it, it does tend to diminish the real issue, which is source-water contamination,” says Martin-Hill. “Most Indigenous people across the country would tell you: water-treatment plants are great; they would like to have them and for them to be operational and functional. And, at the same time, if you’re contaminating their waters with pollutants that cannot be treated, that’s the bigger problem.” 

The federal parties’ plans

All four major federal parties have committed to ending water advisories — though each uses slightly different language. TVO.org asked for specifics about their plans to lift such advisories and whether they had water-access goals not related to advisories. The Liberal and Green parties acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a response by publication time; the Conservatives and the NDP sent general statements. 

The NDP commits to making the “full investments required to ensure clean water and lift all drinking-water advisories for good right now” and to allocating $2.9 billion to clean drinking-water systems. Supporting Indigenous-led water-management training programs is also listed as an “immediate priority.” In an email, a spokesperson said the party was committed to more than simply ending drinking-water advisories but did not provide any details beyond what is available in the platform.

Agenda segment, December 7, 2020: Ending long-term water advisories

The Conservative plan commits to recognizing safe drinking water as a “fundamental human right” and notes that the party will “target high-risk water systems,” referring to a federal assessment categorizing communities’ water systems as high-, medium-, or low-risk. No other major party plan mentions risk ratings. Referring to Trudeau’s record, a Tory spokesperson wrote that “success isn’t measured by funding announcements and election promises, it’s measured by outcomes.” While the statement indicated that the Tories would “work with Indigenous communities to find new approaches, such as regional or coalition-based governance, that will help ensure water systems investments are protected and continue providing clean drinking water in the long term,” it did not indicate how a Conservative government would achieve these outcomes. 

In addition to pledging to end long-term advisories, the Liberal plan commits to preventing future advisories, resolving national class-action litigation related to safe drinking water, and investing funds to ensure “sustainable access” to clean water. The party will, it states, “maintain [its] commitment to invest $6 billion to ensure sustainable access to clean water for First Nations.” The plan also notes that, at present, in each community with a long-term advisory, “there is a project team and action plan in place to resolve it.” 

The Green plan, which is the shortest on detail of the four, commits to investing in infrastructure to lift boil-water advisories and supporting “Indigenous-led processes to implement safe drinking water and wastewater-management systems.” 

In its election priorities, the Chiefs of Ontario has called for a moratorium on the commercial export of water; the Assembly of First Nations has called for the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act to be repealed and replaced with First Nations-led legislation. Neither priority is addressed in the party platforms. 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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