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24th October 2018
...Continued from Part One

Eager for answers, McMaster University professor Martin-Hill is conducting a three-year interdisciplinary study examining the impact of contaminated water and lack of water on humans, as well as fish and wildlife. “We need to know what is going on. Because what is happening with our water is a systemic, institutional assault on indigenous people’s lands and rights over those lands to protect and preserve them.”

Martin-Hill believes that the exorbitant suicide rate among First Nations youth – five to seven times that of other Canadians, according to the federal government – is directly related to the lack of drinkable water. For a Six Nations person, water is sacred and a symbol of life. But the lack also has metaphorical significance, as it becomes representative of the myriad ways that indigenous Canadians are treated as second-class citizens.

“The young people are upset, pissed and demoralized,” Martin-Hill said. “There’s a strong element of depression, sadness and hopelessness because it’s been going on for so long. Young people don’t see a future.”

At Six Nations, the water situation is improving, albeit slowly. In 2013, the community received a $41m grant to build a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. Unfortunately, the grant did not cover the cost of plumbing, so it serves only 9% of homes.

“We had to take out a loan for $12m to come up with the final dollars needed,” Chief Ava Hill said. “In addition, they have not provided sufficient operation and maintenance dollars for us to run the plant. The challenges of gaining money for infrastructure on reserves is that the federal government simply does not provide enough dollars even though they have the fiduciary responsibility to do so.”

With the election of Justin Trudeau, the tide seemed to shift somewhat. The prime minister promised to improve First Nations prosperity and solve the bad water issue on indigenous reserves by March 2021.

While there has been some progress, there aren’t sufficient funds. The Liberal government earmarked $1.8bn over five years to solve the water issue. But the real cost is estimated at $3.2bn, leaving the government more than $1bn short.

For Thomas, the inequality between indigenous people’s access to drinking water and everyone else didn’t start with water, but far earlier, with land displacement and colonialism. For her, it is the latest example of an ongoing cultural genocide. When thinking about how she will survive another day without drinking water, she remembers how her family has survived in the past.

“We are taught to be resilient,” she said. “It’s not right, but it’s just a reality. You have to tell yourself: ‘This is just the way it is.’ Otherwise you become angry and bitter.”