Greg Taylor | CUPE Communications

Artwork by Christi Belcourt, "Manitou Giigoonh #2, 2017, Acrylic on Canvas"Niibi Bimaadiziwin. Translated into English, it means water is life. 

While not universal, it is a law common among many Indigenous nations. To harm or threaten water is to harm yourself, your family, your people, the land and all that live on it.  

Today, ‘Water is life’ is a rally cry for Indigenous peoples facing a devastating water crisis. 

Water problems in Indigenous communities are well documented. Since 2004, 400 of the 614 First Nations in Canada have been under some form of drinking water advisory.  

At one point, in 2012, 116 First Nation communities could not safely drink from their water systems - one out of every five homes on a First Nation reserve could not depend on the household tap.  

As hard as it is to believe, this doesn’t fully capture the scope of the crisis. Many First Nations don’t have any water/wastewater infrastructure at all and are not captured under government water advisory reports. 

Many Indigenous communities rely on water sources that have been harmed by resource development projects or are being threatened by new development going through their territories.  

The news stories and images are stark. Time and again Canadian governments pledged to address the crisis, but it persists.  

People around the world are shocked that these conditions can exist in a nation-state worldly renowned for its public water and wastewater infrastructure. The question gets asked time and time again: why can’t this crisis be fixed? 

For Indigenous people, however, the answer has been part of daily life for generations – colonialism. 

Crisis 500 years in the making 

Colonialism is the policies and laws that impose control over Indigenous peoples’ territory with the aim of economic development and dominance.  

Colonialism isn’t just for history books. It is alive today and very much at the root of the water crisis. 

For much of Canadian history, governments aimed at assimilating Indigenous peoples into ‘Canadian’ society. This was the very root of the residential school system – forcing Indigenous peoples into learning English or French, adopting Christianity, abandoning their ways of life to become part of the broader capitalist system, and occupying unceded territory for settlement.  

While settler society experienced upheavals in the 1960’s, Indigenous people did as well. The movement of Indigenous resistance to assimilation policies took root. Indigenous nations and groups organized to oppose Canadian colonialism.  

This movement led to the founding of the Indian Brotherhood (that became the Assembly of First Nations), the eventual closing of residential schools, and the acknowledgement of Indigenous rights in the Canadian constitution.  

Yet the central legislative tool to control Indigenous peoples, in particular First Nations people, remains – the Indian Act. First introduced in 1876, this archaic and paternalist law gives almost total legal control over First Nation communities to the federal government.  

Permanent austerity  

Some of the more archaic parts of the Indian Act have been amended or are no longer enforced. But instead of trying to control the daily lives, languages and religions of Indigenous people with the Indian Act, Canadian government tactics changed to focus on using the Act for controlling Indigenous communities’ finances.  

Governments started to greatly restrict what they decided was their ‘obligations’ to Indigenous people – a power held through the Indian Act. This severely limits spending for on-reserve infrastructure.  

Downloading of services, funding caps, rigid administrative bureaucracies, and over-the-top reporting requirements hoisted on First Nation governments, via the Indian Act, tipped already minimal on-reserve infrastructure into all-out crisis. 

By the 2000’s, the drinking water crisis shocked enough people that Canadian governments could no longer ignore it.  

Successive Conservative and Liberal federal governments pledged to address the crisis. But their solution consistently comes tied to a familiar threat to public infrastructure – privatization. 

Contracting out colonialism  

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government implemented new laws which they said would address the crisis. The 2013 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act set out stringent regulations for on-reserve water/wastewater systems, but without providing for any new funding to help First Nations meet or maintain the new standards.  

At the same time, the Harper government put a virtual halt to any infrastructure spending to Indigenous communities that weren’t part of a public-private partnership (P3).  

Over the 9 years of the Harper government, only one First Nation P3 project was ever completed – a correctional facility in BC.  

Unable to meet new water regulations with crumbling infrastructure, and unable (and often unwilling) to partake in P3 projects, First Nations governments simply couldn’t get ahead.  

Over the course of the Harper government years, there was practically no improvement to the numbers of water advisories on First Nations. 

Trudeau: one step forward, half step back 

A key promise of the first Trudeau Liberal government was addressing the water crisis and pledging to eliminate all advisories by 2021.  

While the federal government is still trying to entice First Nations into P3s (with no success), funding has increased significantly for on-reserve infrastructure. This funding, however, is still not at the levels seen prior to the drastic cuts of Harper government.”  

Since 2015, 88 boil water advisories have been resolved.  

But over that time, at least 30 new advisories were issued.  

Despite even more funding for 2019, the numbers barely moved. Indigenous Services Canada reporting shows only four fewer long-term boil water advisories by the end of the year.  

With one year left to the 2021 target, over 6,000 homes and community buildings still can’t depend on tap water. That’s tens of thousands Indigenous people without dependable safe drinking water.  

What’s still wrong? 

Despite investments to build new infrastructure, Canadian colonial policies are still hindering real progress. 

Yes, new water treatment plants are being built. But First Nations don’t have the resources to operate and maintain them. 

Only 56 percent of First Nation water systems have a primary operator. Nineteen percent don’t have any back ups. That means no vacations, no time off, and a sick day could mean a whole community loses its drinking water.  

At least three percent have no operators at all.  

With many on-reserve operators making as little as $12 per hour, it’s hard to recruit and even harder to retain qualified staff. 

Without long-term, predictable funding for operations and maintenance, at the same levels spent for infrastructure in non-Indigenous communities, the crisis may linger for generations. 

Raising awareness 

Increasingly troubled by the lack of real progress and the lack of understanding about the root causes of the crisis in colonialism, CUPE’s National Indigenous Council made water a priority going into the last National Convention.  

Council members prioritized a resolution for CUPE to raise awareness about the traditional role of Indigenous peoples as stewards of water, and the traditions in Indigenous law to observe ‘water is life’ – a concept that extends from making sure Indigenous water/waste water systems are safe, reliable and well maintained, to protecting and healing water in Indigenous territories.  

The campaign, resulting from the adoption of this resolution, is in the very early stages. It will be a difficult, but necessary, next step for CUPE, and all of Canada, in reconciliation.  

Artwork by Christi Belcourt,