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To protect water, fight environmental racism

Catherine Gendron

March 26, 2015

March 21 was the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the day after, March 22, was World Water Day. The fact that these two days of recognition are side-by-side brings attention to a major concern in Canada.
There is a common misconception that barriers to safe tap water only impacts developing countries, yet this is clearly not the case. Canada has an alarming and unequal proportion of First Nations communities currently under Drinking Water Advisories. In fact, Health Canada has indicated that as of January 31, 2015, there are 136 Drinking Water Advisories in effect within 93 First Nations communities, excluding British Columbia. It has recently been reported that there are 579 drinking-water advisories in BC as of January 2015, more than any other province or territory. Drinking Water Advisories require residents of the area to boil their water or avoid their water altogether. Living under such advisories in an affront to our basic rights—water is a basic need, and yet Canada is embarrassingly deficient in its water services, particularly in relation to First Nations.
The most recent Auditor General Report on Programs for First Nations on Reserves contains disconcerting statistics: “more than half of water systems on reserves still posed a medium or high risk to the community members they served” and that “Health Canada does not ensure that drinking water is tested on a regular basis.” EKOS Research Associates also released information where again, statistics were startling, and it is easy to see the clear disparities: “fewer than half of the First Nations residents rated the quality of their water as ‘good’ and …one quarter consider their drinking water quality to be terms of safety, 3 of 10 thought their water was safe, 4 out of 10 thought it somewhat safe, and 3 out of 10 feel their water is unsafe...people’s lack of security led to less use of tap water for cooking and, particularly, for drinking...only 55 per cent of the homes surveyed had water delivered to their home; 19 per cent used a cistern and 17 per cent used wells.” Whereas in non-Indigenous communities (including rural communities), “98 per cent believe they get enough water delivered to their homes and over 60 per cent are very pleased with the quality—the over 30 per cent of those not pleased cited taste issues not safety.”
Environmental racism
Neither water amount nor population size causes these water advisories: Canada has approximately 9 per cent of the world’s renewable water supply, and less than 0.5 per cent of the global population. Instead, it is clear that our water treatment plans and priorities are inequitable. Recently, Winnipeg and Gatineau were both under water advisories. It took only two days for the advisory to be lifted in Winnipeg, and four days to be lifted in Gatineau. However, many First Nation communities have been under water advisories for years. Why is it that treatment for water can be so quickly achieved in certain areas, yet on reserve residents must live under water advisories for an unforeseeable future?
Structural racism lends way to discrimination in the distribution of resources. The failure of ensuring a basic need, predominantly amongst First Nations communities, serves as an example of structural racism. First Nations socio-economic disparity sustains deprived conditions and limits a fundamental part of human existence—water—and the result is poor health. The Grand Council of the Crees in Quebec (Eeyou Istchee) tell us that, “access to potable water, adequate sanitation and waste disposal services has been routine for so long in this country that most Canadians take them for granted. The same access is not guaranteed for Aboriginal people, however, and their health suffers as a result.” Merrell-Ann Phare of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Research explains: “water treatment systems are difficult to maintain, especially when federal dollars received by Indigenous communities (per capita) are less than half of what non-Aboriginal communities receive.”
These disparities are not accidental but a direct result of Canadian colonialism, which not only deliberately underfunds First Nations but also unleashes oil corporations on their territories. The tar sands occupy land Indigenous land the size of England, wasting three barrels of water for every one barrel of oil, and producing toxic tailing ponds that contaminate the water.
Climate justice
There is no question that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people experience separate and very different access to safe water, and this has to change. We need to share our knowledge about these vast differences and advocate for justice and quality health. When all people share equal access to basic rights, each one of us benefits from the health and empowerment that ensues. As Crystal Lameman from the Beaven Lake Cree Nation—who have taken the Canadian government to court to protect their territories from oil companies—explains, “If you breath air and drink water, this is about you. Indigenous rights is the last stronghold we have protecting Mother Earth.” Last month, after a seven year battle, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation succeeded in pushing Shell to cancel its Pierre River Mine project—which would have pumped more than a quarter of a million barrels of tar sands oil a day.
Next month Shell is on trial for its spill near Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Aamjiwnaang is surrounded by Chemical Valley and its dozens of polluting oil companies, who poison the water. As land defender Vanessa Gray explains, “Our water is toxic, we are aware that it is dangerous for our health. But we have so many unanswered questions: what is in this water, who is responsible for dumping in our water source.” Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP) is organizing a solidarity rally outside the Shell trial. As ASAP explains, “While Shell Canada proposes to expand production capacity up to 95,000 barrels a day, the same dirty company facility is charged for poisoning Aamjiwnaang’s daycare children. On January 11 2013 at 2:00pm Shell leaked sour water containing mercaptan, hydrogen sulfide, and benzene from their flare system. The community was on alert about the leak an hour after it had happened. Community members reported symptoms including bloodshot eyes, headaches, migraines, nausea, throat irritation, dizziness, shortness of breath, a bitter taste in the mouth and coughing. Nothing could make up for putting the health of our families and loved ones in danger.”
If you like this article register for Rage Against the System, a weekend conference of ideas to change the world, April 24-26 in Toronto. Sessions include “Stopping Harper’s agenda” and “Colonialism and Indigenous resistance,” featuring guest speaker Vanessa Gray.

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