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Fresh Water for First Nations

Written by Jordan Lane Gilmore

FirstNationsWaterA Local Crisis

By now you’re familiar with water crises internationally. You know that in Africa and South East Asia, for example, there are thousands upon thousands of people who do not have access to clean drinking water. But it might surprise you to find a similar crisis occurs right now in your very own backyard.

If you think “crisis” is too extreme a word to use, think again. At this moment whole communities of people in Canada suffer from contaminated wells and dirty source water which lead to a range of major, even fatal, health issues. Long running response measures have been in place, such as rationing and boil water advisories, but that does not attack the problem, or basic access to clean water, head-on. This type of resource exhaustion is not what you would or should expect from a developed country. And we should be ashamed.

There are countless cases (documented by international aid organizations and NGOs, watchdog groups and even corporate companies via their Corporate Responsibility programs), where the indigenous people are often promised economic and community development but also often promised nothing in exchange for the extraction of their precious natural resource. But that is often in developing countries. At what point, in Canada, a developed country, will we say this resource exhaustion is too much? First Nations in Canada right now and, in many instances, over the past decade, have been in a state of water crisis.

Canada and the First Nations’ Water

When we look at places like Ontario, well known for so much surface water, such as lakes, we assume that there is abundance. But the truth of the matter is that just last year cities right outside of Toronto experienced severe drought. The times and conditions are changing.

Many suggest that we (humans, specifically) can simply adapt to these unprecedentedly severe conditions. But this is a dangerous posture because it often implies that environmental and health conditions can be resolved easily and rapidly. The presumption, for example, that technological innovation always rises to the occasion may be correct, but it will most certainly come at a cost. Water treatment (filtering and “purifying”), for example, will become more expensive and consequently inaccessible for many.

In recent years we have extracted groundwater at unprecedented rates (rates that exceed the source’s rate of recharge), depleting the source, which puts our potable water at higher risk. This is especially the case with water wells, which many of First Nation communities rely on.

For many of the First Nations of Canada, potable freshwater has already been exhausted. Drinking water has literally being extracted from beneath them and shipped off for sale. The impacts involve insufficient water and a poor quality of water leading to critical health and basic human right issues. The United Nations General Assembly (UN) has made access to water an international law, primarily in response to (similar) conditions in undeveloped countries. So it is quite embarrassing that we might have to invoke international law here domestically (in a developed nation). We are often quick to deploy government assistance to neighbors outside of the country amidst resource crisis but here at home there is no sense of urgency when the original inhabitants—and the only people group that took the best care of a precious resource—have been unprecedentedly deprived of it. Activists refer to this (predatory) behavior and idle representation as legal theft. But this is indeed the present reality of the situation. And action must be taken immediately, action that more closely resembles the historic approach to environment that the First Nations embody.

Competing with Bottled Water

The situation is quite dire for First Nations. At least 92 First Nation communities are under restricted use advisories and presently draw from drinking water systems that threaten their health. In Ontario, for example, the Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil water advisory for 20 years. Meanwhile, bottled-water companies and other private enterprises draw a tremendous amount of freshwater from First Nation reserves at the concession of government. Even during severe cases of drought, these companies have been permitted to continue extracting. While this points to a number of issues around the privatization of water, one stands out as it relates to the First Nations—cities and communities are being out-bit by private companies for water taking permits while the community’s basic needs for water not met. Nestle’s bottled water operations, for example, have gained a reputation for “grabbing up” permits in Canada when municipalities have also bid for the access. For the community, competing with a multinational corporate group is a serious challenge. Meanwhile, this corporate enterprise and other industrial withdrawals from groundwater are responsible for the vulnerability of water reserves and pollution to the environment.

The bottled water industry has experienced exceptional growth in recent years—it is projected to surpass that of the carbonated drinks industry this year. And regulation is out of date. Across North America, especially in Oregon and California, companies like Nestle made large investments in campaigns and lobbying where their permits were contested by local communities (that were also experiencing drought). This is to point out that you can expect private industry to protect its interests, which may include the sustainability of the natural resource but not necessarily the sustainability of the communities. These communities do not always have the (financial) resources to fight (a now $60 billion) industry in these legal or lobbying battles… which highlights the responsibility of government(s) to play a more scrupulous role.

Adapted from Jordan Lane Gilmore’s fall issue column in the Bay Street Bull magazine

Jordan Lane Gilmore

Jordan Lane Gilmore is a lobbyist and policy advisor to energy and water technology companies and trade groups. He specializes in government relations strategy for NPOs with goals to advance the clean energy economy and he spearheads a variety of industry events, conferences, workshops and forums focused on emerging technologies in the Gulf Coast and Northeast US. He blends his experience in former federal, state, and industry roles to build Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and is committed to turning the growing issue of energy-water collisions into new business opportunity.

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