24th February 2021
Bad Water Sickens First Nations. But Government Doesn’t Track the Toll
Data to identify and fix problems don’t exist. The ‘black hole,’ say critics, lets feds off the hook. A special report.
Annie Burns-Pieper Today The Tyee / Institute for Investigative Journalism
The true toll of the water crisis in First Nations communities across Canada can’t be known because the government has failed to track and study water-related illnesses.
That stands in the way of tackling the problem, experts told the Institute for Investigative Journalism as part of “Clean Water, Broken Promises,” a year-long investigation conducted in collaboration with universities across the country and a consortium of media outlets including The Tyee.
Some critics charge the “black hole” of information is intentional because it allows authorities to duck responsibility.
A disproportionate number of illnesses which occur as a result of contaminated drinking water are in First Nations communities with substandard water systems, but the data needed to map the reality are missing.
Even the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia, the first province-wide health authority to serve First Nations in Canada, revealed that it does not track data on water-related illnesses or deaths in First Nations in the province.
“There’s an obligation of the crown to be aware of it, and do something about it,” said Aimée Craft, an Anishinaabe-Métis associate professor in the faculty of common law at the University of Ottawa. She said a failure to track this information prevents the development of policies needed to address this issue.
Missing, too, is the robust level of published expert research that might be expected for so serious and complex a health issue in Canada (see sidebar).
First Nations have suspected that cancer, stomach infections, bacterial contamination, skin conditions, birth defects and even deaths can be attributed to their water. While water can impact health in a variety of complex ways, experts say there is no excuse to not be tracking certain basic ailments.
“There are direct consequences of challenges in water quality,” said Dr. Alan Katz, director of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. “This is not something that we should see as being difficult to describe or challenging,” he said in an interview. “It’s historically the birth of public health.”
But critics say government’s failure to collect such data may be on purpose.
“There’s nothing. It’s a black hole. I always tell people, it’s a deliberate black hole,” said Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, Ontario. “This is all about protecting the government from liability. If they don’t track it, there’s no evidence.”
The federal government is facing multiple lawsuits in relation to water access and quality on First Nations including two high-profile class actions brought by members of Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Curve Lake and Neskantaga First Nations that allege Canada is negligent “in creating and failing to remedy conditions of inadequate access to potable water.”
In a January interview with the minister of Indigenous services, Marc Miller agreed there was a need for more information on the impact of bad water, saying “certainly, we need better water data.” However, he denied claims the lack of it benefited the government. “There’s no incentive in hiding information. There’s no incentive in not collecting information.”
When water can’t be trusted
Arlene Nakogee lives in Kashechewan in northern Ontario. Her three-year-old daughter has suffered from a painful skin condition since she was three months old. She said the toddler is covered in sores and is often itchy and in pain but says there is little she can do for her.
Nakogee believes the problems have been caused by the water in her home, but she said, “I have no choice but to use the tap water.”
She suspects chlorination is playing a role in her daughter’s skin problems. “You could smell the bleach whenever you run the water here,” said Nakogee.
Chlorinating drinking water is a standard method of removing bacteria. Indigenous Services Canada calls it “one of the most important public health achievements of the 20th century.” Yet, the heavy use of chlorine is said to cause skin problems.
Chief Emily Whetung of Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario said, like Nakogee, she doesn’t trust the water in her community. Several years ago she said she and her family contracted what she believes was E. coli poisoning after consuming water from her family’s well. “We were all violently ill for a couple of days,” said Whetung.
Following the illness, they got their well tested. She said the health officials who tested the water were terrified about the E. coli levels.
She said after decades of water issues in the community, whenever people feel unwell, they have the same questions: “Is it just me, is it the water? And did I come in contact with something, is it the water?”
Chief Whetung says people who reside in First Nations live with an underlying understanding “that you’re not starting from a point of clean water.”
But she counts herself lucky. “Both of my parents were teachers, so we had no issue buying bottled water for my entire life.”
She is a lawyer who worked in Peterborough and is often questioned about why she does not just move to a city. “When you choose to leave the reserve there’s social consequences, there’s cultural consequences, there’s absolutely language and knowledge consequences that are far more significant than someone who decides that living outside of a city is better for them.”
Curve Lake First Nation had a boil water advisory in parts of the community from July 2016 to June 2018. When she was elected as Chief, water was one of her priorities.
She said though her community has qualified for funding to design a water treatment plant, a fix is still at least several years away.
While Canadians may have become accustomed to hearing about drinking water advisories, each one represents a community of people who need to drink, cook, bathe and clean using that water. When a boil water advisory is in place, residents are required to bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute before using it for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, washing produce and even bathing infants and toddlers.
In 2016, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan did a review of peer-reviewed research published between 2000 and 2015 on water and health in Indigenous communities in Canada. They found that problems like skin issues and gastrointestinal illnesses, like those experienced by Nakogee’s daughter and Chief Whetung, were two of the most commonly reported in relation to water.
They also found reports of birth defects, obesity, anxiety and depression, heart diseases, liver diseases, kidney problems, neurological problems, immunopathology, cancers, thyroid conditions and infant mortality in connection to low-quality water.
‘No national surveillance system’ for outbreaks
The Institute for Investigative Journalism contacted 59 organizations that keep health data across the country, including provincial and territorial ministries of health, ministries of Indigenous affairs, and coroners’ offices to try to find statistics that show how often people living on reserves are sick or even die as a result of their water.
Among the 28 across the country that replied, responses were similar. “Data about waterborne illnesses on First Nations communities fall under the jurisdiction of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch at Health Canada,” wrote the media relations team at Public Health Ontario.
However, a request to the federal government through Health Canada revealed that neither Health Canada, Statistics Canada, nor Indigenous Services Canada keeps data on deaths and illnesses resulting from contaminated water in Indigenous communities.
“There is no national surveillance system specifically for waterborne disease outbreaks,” said spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada Leslie Michelson. “When epidemiological evidence indicates that drinking water is, or may be, responsible for a disease outbreak, a DWA is issued.”
She said tracking of waterborne illness is done locally but “can be under-reported as they are difficult to identify, and the collection of information can be incomplete or not widely published/distributed.”
She added that since the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch was created in 2003, there has not been a confirmed waterborne disease outbreak identified in a First Nation.
At the time of his response, David Wolkowski was a spokesperson for Health Canada. He told the IIJ by email that “the ongoing monitoring of waterborne illnesses does occur and is well understood at the local and provincial/territorial public health level.” He suggested contacting provincial and territorial ministries of health for a better picture.
...continued in Part 2