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By Tara Lohan
It was 1985 and privatization, deregulation and free trade were in the air. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan were negotiating a free trade deal — a precursor to NAFTA. Among the goods it would cover: "Water, including … mineral waters … ice and snow."
Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario has had to boil water since 1995. "We're over 20 years already where our people haven't been able to get the water they need to drink from their taps or to bathe themselves without getting any rashes," Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias told CBC News in 2015. Their water issues have yet to be resolved.
They're not alone. In fall last year, 156 drinking water advisories were in place in First Nations in Canada. More than 100 are routinely in effect—some for years or decades. According to a 2015 CBC investigation, "Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade."
Water advisories vary in severity. A "boil water advisory" means residents must boil water before using it for drinking or bathing. "Do not consume" means water is not safe to drink or consume and a "do not use advisory" means water is unsafe for any human use.
Water on First Nations reserves is a federal responsibility, but "severe underfunding" (in the government's own words) for water treatment plants, infrastructure, operations, maintenance and training has led to this deplorable situation. Canada has no federal standards or binding regulations governing First Nations' drinking water.
After years of pressure from First Nations and Indigenous and social justice organizations, the Liberal party promised in its 2015 election campaign to end all First Nations' long-term drinking water advisories within five years of being elected. In 2016, the new government's budget included $1.8 billion over five years, on top of core funding for First Nations' water infrastructure, operations and management. Funds have gone to help Neskantaga and other communities, but money's not enough. If the federal government is to fulfill its commitment to ending advisories in five years, it must reform its system.
The David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians have published a report card rating government's progress on meeting its commitment in nine First Nations in Ontario, which has the highest number of water advisories in Canada. The Glass half empty? report found advisories in three communities have been lifted or will likely be lifted within five years.
Efforts are underway in three other communities, but uncertainty lingers about whether they'll succeed within the five-year period. Three others are unlikely to have advisories lifted within five years without reformed processes and procedures. And in one community that had its advisory lifted, new drinking water problems emerged, illustrating the need for sustainable, long-term solutions.
It's unacceptable that so many First Nations lack clean water and face serious water-related health risks—especially for children and the elderly—in a country where many people take abundant fresh water for granted. The United Nations recognizes access to clean water and sanitation as a human right and Canada has further obligations under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The report card concludes that the system for addressing unsafe drinking water is overly cumbersome and must be streamlined, First Nations must be have more decision-making power to address community-specific drinking water issues and government must increase transparency around progress and budgetary allocations. It calls on government to redouble its efforts to advance First Nations-led initiatives, fulfill its fiduciary responsibility to First Nations, respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ensure the human right to safe and clean drinking water.
The federally funded Safe Water Project is one example of a First Nations–led approach. The Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council started the initiative in 2014 in response to long-term advisories in four of six member nations. The project keeps management at the community level and includes training and certification of local water operators, operational support while local water operators pursue certification and remote water quality monitoring technology.
The project's success illustrates the benefits of a local approach. Community-specific, traditional and cultural knowledge are integral to developing lasting solutions. Because the federal government holds the purse strings, it calls most of the shots and often overlooks knowledge held by community members. This needs to change.
Clean drinking water on reserves is not just an Indigenous issue. It's a human right and it should concern all of us.
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Nestlé's grab of a Canadian community's water supply has sparked international outrage and calls to boycott the company and bottled water. More than 150,000 Facebook users are talking about the news on the social media site.
The Council of Canadians is calling on people to sign a declaration on its website to boycott bottled water and Nestlé.
Nestlé Waters Canada, a bottled water operation of the multinational food and drink giant, outbid the Township of Central Wellington in Ontario for water rights to a local well to ensure "future business growth."
The company is already permitted to pull up to 3.6 million liters (roughly 951,000 gallons) of water a day for its bottling operations in nearby Aberfoyle, but decided to swoop up the well near Elora, Ontario in order "to supplement our operations in Aberfoyle."
According to the Globe and Mail, the company bought the well from Middlebrook Water Company last month after having made a conditional offer in 2015.
The reason this issue has blown up is because the Township of Centre Wellington wanted to buy the spring water well for itself in order to safeguard the drinking water supply the growing community, mayor Kelly Linton explained to The Guardian.
The township has a population of about 30,000 but "by 2041, we'll be closer to 50,000 so protecting our water sources is critical to us," he said.
Not only that, much of the province of Ontario is experiencing record drought conditions, with rainfall 100 millimeters below normal in some areas from April to June, the National Post reported in July.
A drought intensity map released by Agriculture Canada on June 17, showing "moderate drought" across eastern Ontario.Agriculture Canada
According to The Guardian, when township authorities learned that Nestlé was trying to buy the well, they scrambled over the summer to come up with a counter-offer.
"We put in more money than they did and we removed all conditions," Linton said. The amount has not been specified.
But Nestlé, which had right of first refusal, was able to match the township's offer and won the well for itself.
"As you can appreciate we aren't going to be outbidding Nestlé," Linton said. "As a small town we're using taxpayer dollars, so we have to be good stewards of that."
Nestlé was reportedly unaware of the township's counter-offer until after the purchase was made. Since securing the well, the company said it has submitted an application to the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to conduct an aquifer pump test to determine if the water source meets the company's internal requirements "as well as ensure it can be operated in a sustainable manner." If the source at the Middlebrook well site meets Nestlé's requirements, the company will seek a permit that allows it to draw water at 300 gallons a minute, Nestlé said.
However, Wellington Water Watchers, a local volunteer group, plans to block the company's plans.
"We are fighting tooth and nail to not allow that pump test to go ahead," Mike Nagy of the group told The Guardian.
The Wellington Water Watchers pointed out in a Facebook post that Nestlé's latest move will vastly increase plastic pollution due to the wastefulness of bottled water.
"Think about the plastic we will stop being produced by saying NO to the Nestle permit renewals and the recent purchase of the Middlebrook Well. 6.4 million liters a day would translate into 12 million plastic packages per day! This is how much water they would have access to if they get the permit in Elora Centre Wellington as they already have 4.7 million liters day. Use the 4th R, REFUSE."
The Council of Canadians is also urging a national boycott of Nestlé. A media release for the boycott states:
"This summer, while many parts of southern Ontario faced drought conditions, Nestlé continued to pump more than 4 million litres of groundwater every day from an aquifer near Guelph. Nestlé pays less than $15 per day for this water, which it then ships out in hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bottles for sale all over North America."
"The water crisis is at our door here in Canada," Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow said. "Groundwater resources are finite and are currently taxed by droughts, climate change and over-extraction. At this pace, we will not have enough for our future needs. Wasting our limited groundwater on frivolous and consumptive uses such as bottled water is a recipe for disaster. We must safeguard groundwater reserves for communities and future generations."
Additionally, as Barlow told the Canadian Press, the new Elora well is located near a First Nation's reserve, potentially putting their water supply at risk.
"[The well] sits on the traditional territory of the Six Nations of the Grand River, 11,000 of whom do not have access to clean running water," Barlow said.
Nestlé's has been making many recent headlines over its bottling operations. Last week, EcoWatch reported that the Swiss conglomerate is now legally permitted to take water from the San Bernardino National Forest in California on a permit that expired back in 1988.
A federal judge ruled that the corporation can continue its use of a 4-mile pipeline that siphons thousands of gallons of public water a day from the Strawberry Creek watershed and sell it back to the public as bottled water. The water is sold under the Arrowhead brand.