Improving Drinking Water in Canada’s First Nations: Time to Embrace Complexity

By Dr. Madjid Mohseni, Scientific Director, RES’EAU-WaterNET, 
Professor, Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, UBC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party tabled their first federal budget March 22, 2016. As expected, it earmarked nearly $2 billion in funding for drinking and wastewater infrastructure toward the goal of ending boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years. 

Many people are asking, will it be enough? Others are pointing out that, back in 2011, a consulting report  prepared for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development suggested that $5 billion would be needed over 10 years to bring First Nations drinking water systems in line with regulations. Certainly the new commitment tops our previous government’s allocation  in 2014 of $323 million over two years toward the same challenges.

However, as we previously blogged, it is an oversimplification to suggest that the complex barriers First Nations face when it comes to drinking water will be remedied by funding alone. 

That’s because any undertaking to improve conditions and provide safe and enjoyable drinking water in these communities is a Rubik’s Cube of entangled issues that also include housing and energy – make changes to improve only one, and you risk confounding progress with the others. It’s a puzzle Canada has been struggling to solve for decades now, and despite a proliferation in the number of organizations that claim to be working on solutions over the past few years, we are no closer to a nation-wide answer than at any time in our past. 

Here’s why. Housing, energy and water in our First Nations are really just stratifications of a larger, more important concept – individual and community health and well being, as defined by indigenous peoples. Until we begin to look at impediments to progress and definitions of success through a First Nation lens, meaningful improvements will continue to elude us no matter what our breakthroughs in technology or increases in funding may be. In our experience collaborating with these communities, the only way to understand their perspective is to foster an open dialogue – listening first, and then working together toward goals on which all sides agree. 

Really, there is no nation-wide solution to be had; rather, each community requires and deserves to have their unique perspective heard. That’s not an easy proposition to digest. Improving community health in the context of water will require navigating federal, provincial/territorial and regional regulations to implement new, effective and easy-to-use technologies, as well as a rethink on how we assess sustainability and the economics of drinking water – all while raising awareness of water health and creating buy-in for proposed solutions.  

The truth is that there have been many attempts over the years to intervene in First Nations’ water problems, but rarely have the communities themselves been brought to the table to decide what needs to be done. 

Until that happens, Canada will not maximize the positive impact this new funding could have. 

Photo: soaringbird/Flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0)


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