Seven percent of all renewable fresh water in the world is in Canada, twenty percent if you include sources considered non-renewable like glaciers and underground aquifers. For scale, Canada has about half of one percent of the world’s population. So there is water aplenty for all. But dozens of First Nations communities are going thirsty amid all that bounty.
Even communities like Curve Lake First Nation, a rural community in southern Canada surrounded on three sides by their eponymous lake, rely on expensive bottled water. A landfill and dairy farming near their lake makes it unsafe to drink, contaminated with heavy metals and E. coli, and the community’s infrastructure is too old to make it safe. For nearly 40 years, they’ve not been able to drink their tap water without filtering and boiling every cup.
First Nations communities are banned by old laws from funding their own water management systems, so the burden falls on the federal government. And they’ve been falling far short. Six years ago, Justin Trudeau promised on his campaign trail to make First Nations water a priority. That, too, fell through for many.
Now, dozens of First Nations communities are suing the Canadian federal government to make them whole regarding water rights. Curve Lake, along with two nearby communities, are seeking C$2.1 billion in damages to cover decades of bottled water and waterborne illnesses, along with a new water treatment system for each community.
“It’s unacceptable in a country that is financially one of the most wealthy in the world, and water rich, and the reality is that many communities don’t have access to clean water,” said the federal Indigenous services minister, Marc Miller, in an interview with the Guardian.
“It seems unbelievable that there are communities that have dealt with drinking water advisories for more than two decades,” said Charles Hume, an elder with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations who are also suing for progress. “We’re not looked at the same … we’re actually the last on the totem pole.”