Bad drinking water on native reserves a hidden tragedy, MP charges
By Jen Ross
People living on First Nations reserves across the country are exposed to parasites, bacteria and dissolved metals in their drinking water at a scale comparable to Walkerton or North Battleford, Sask. But few, including those affected, know the scope of the problem.
Centralized reporting and national standards are among the many changes First Nations groups, MPs and water experts will be calling for today at a two-day water summit at the Wahta Mohawk reserve in Bala, Ont., two hours north of Toronto.
“The tragedy that happened in Walkerton really resonated with Canadians across the country. But the hidden tragedy that we don't see is on First Nations reserves,” said John Herron, Conservative MP for Fundy-Royal, at a federal roundtable on drinking water he chaired on Parliament Hill July 17. Mr. Herron, who will attend today's meeting, said a 1995 Health Canada report found 171 First Nations' water systems (of 863) had contaminants beyond Health Canada guidelines.
No national records or statistics on deaths or illness among First Nations people exist and there is no centralized monitoring system.
If someone gets sick, their illness can't be traced unless they see a doctor -- already a challenge in many communities with no physicians. If the doctor then tests their stool and finds a pathogen it may still be difficult to determine whether it was from water or food sources.
Outbreaks of shigella have been reported in Saskatchewan and Alberta, hepatitis A in Ontario, and cases of diarrhea-causing E. coli, giardia, and cryptosporidium (the parasite in North Battleford) are commonplace across the country. Isolated cases of mild cholera have even been reported. Uranium, mercury and benzene also have been found in some water supplies.
Today's conference follows on the heels of a report presented to the Walkerton inquiry July 9 by the First Nations chiefs of Ontario. They said almost half of the 80,000 natives living on reserves in Ontario drink water that fails to meet standards because the federal government transferred responsibility for water safety without providing enough funding.
Last year, a child and an adult died in Gull Bay, Ont., and residents suspect their deaths were linked to water supply. Autopsies showed liver damage in the adult from hepatitis A. Gull Bay had a major outbreak of hepatitis A from its water supply in 1994.
“Seven people died in Walkerton, a town of 5,000 people; if two died in Gull Bay where there are 300 people, that's worse,” said Gull Bay Chief Oliver Poile.
He says he has asked Health Canada to test the water but has been refused. A Health Canada regional official said monthly tests are conducted for coliforms and yearly tests for dissolved metals.
“We might be dying from (the water) but we don't know,” said Mr. Poile. “If this was a white community, we would have been given testing.”
The story is familiar to Alexandra McGregor, health policy analyst for the Assembly of First Nations. On her reserve, Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg in Maniwaki, Que., uranium was discovered in the water. The community has been drinking bottled water for three years, but still washes with uranium-contaminated water. She says there are cases of cancers in children, but she says the government has told them there is no money to do research on the effects of the contamination.
Hans Peterson, executive director of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, has worked closely with the Yellow Quill First Nation near Saskatoon. They have had a boil water advisory in place since 1995.
“There doesn't seem to be any link between the urgency of the problem and the response from the people who have the money,” he said, chiding the federal government.
Change is similarly slow on the Attawapiskat reserve, in northern Ontario, where more than 500 children were exposed to benzene and showed signs of poisoning.
The community has been unable to use tap water for four years. Indian Affairs authorities said the delay is due to the difficulty of finding another water source. A new plant is under construction.
Boil-water advisories are common on reserves across the country. Ontario currently has 20 of its 134 native communities on boil-water advisories.
Ian Corbin, director of infrastructure and housing with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said 95 per cent of First Nation reserves have basic water and sewer facilities and the federal government spends an average of about $125 million a year upgrading water and wastewater facilities. It spends $40 million on operation and maintenance, and $2 million to $3 million on training plant operators.