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22nd February 2021
...continued from Part 2

Last year, a young woman took her own life in Neskantaga. “This girl never grew up opening the tap,” said Mamakwa, “and that certainly has an impact on mental health and wellness.”

“Water is one of those fundamental building blocks of all life. So, if it’s missing, then it is obviously a big problem for maintaining good health,” says SFU’s Reading.

Lack of access to water can harm health in ways not immediately obvious. For example, prevalence rates of diabetes are three to five times higher in First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations. Some like Lalita Bharadwaj, professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health, have questioned whether reliance on carbonated or sugary drinks may play a role. In places where individuals have to buy bottled water, need to boil their water or do not like the taste of their water, purchasing these types of drinks may be easier or cheaper than drinking water she said, noting more research on the connection is required.

Communities with inadequate water often also have inadequate housing. The two issues can combine to create dangerous conditions.

Danika Littlechild is an assistant professor at Carleton University and a member of Neyaskweyahk, Ermineskin Cree Nation located in Maskwacis, southeast of Edmonton. She said in her community because people do not have adequate sanitation in their homes, there is a high demand for wound care.

“What we see a lot of, actually, is a significant number of amputations. And it sounds extreme to say that, but the fact is that there’s so much diabetes. So, say, a diabetic gets cut on their foot, and they have no adequate sanitation in their home, they can’t wash it properly,” said Littlechild.

Melanie O’Gorman, an associate professor in the department of economics at University of Winnipeg, has looked at health outcomes in communities that rely on cisterns for water, large storage tanks that are filled by trucks.

The federal government says about one in seven homes in First Nations communities across the country depend on this system. Research has shown that these containers are prone to contamination.

Kylie Meguinis is a resident of Tsuut’ina Nation near Calgary who lives with 11 others and relies on trucked water. “I don’t trust my own cistern because it hasn’t gotten cleaned in years,” she said.

The pandemic makes this even more dangerous. “An additional bacterial infection may compromise immune systems and add additional risk for COVID-19 or other types of infection,” said Bhardwaj.

Homes like Meguinis’, which can sometimes house up to 15 people, have cisterns which hold between 1,000 to 7,000 litres. They are generally filled up once or twice a week and as a result many families have to ration water.

Being at home more often during the pandemic put even more demand on water for Meguinis’ family. “We’re all at home. We’re consuming water. We’re needing to do this, we’re needing to do that, and I have to wash clothes, and wash dishes, to cook, to keep the house clean. And it was such a frustrating situation,” she said.

Needing to restrict water use comes with risks, according to O’Gorman. “People, when they ration their water, this means that they may be unable to clean their houses sufficiently, so that mold and respiratory issues may result.”

‘I’ve just never seen the due diligence’

Critics allege the reason more is not known about the toll of the water crisis is intentional. “The government works on the principle that if they don’t have the data, it’s very difficult to come up with a solution, which means they don’t have to spend money,” said NDP MP Angus.

“I’ve just never seen the due diligence that’s required from a department who oversees the health and safety of so many thousands of people,” said Angus.

“Colonial systems are kind of sometimes willfully blind in their colonial structures to issues, and that’s why there’s very little data,” said Dr. Kirlew.

But the federal government is obligated to collect information so key to First Nations’ well-being, believes Reading. “Those were things that were agreed upon in exchange for land, and there is a legal basis for the fiduciary obligations of the Crown towards Indigenous people, and that’s basic Indigenous relations.”

Craft said a failure to know the extent of the water crisis is not an excuse for inaction. “If some Canadians are not able to access their basic human rights, there’s an obligation in the crown to be aware of it, and do something about it.”

This summer, Chief Whetung became a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that seeks $1 billion in damages for a breach of the Charter rights, $1 billion for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and nuisance and $100 million in punitive damages from the government for its failures to provide safe drinking water.

Whetung said she hopes the suit will speed up the federal government’s response to the water crisis. “We’re hoping to see a commitment to the infrastructure that’s needed for every First Nation to have clean drinking water for every member of their community.”