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Kaycie Lane is a PhD student at Dalhousie University that focuses on drinking water safety in rural communities. Graham Gagnon is a professor in the Centre for Water Resources at Dalhousie University.

The current water crisis at Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario has resulted in the shutdown of the community’s school, hundreds of evacuations and the declaration of a state of emergency. The situation draws attention to a continuing and unacceptable problem in Canada: the lack of access to clean drinking water in Indigenous communities across the country.

The crisis at Neskantaga First Nation was caused by a treatment failure due to a broken-down pump system, resulting in unfiltered water flowing out into the community’s tap. These unaddressed operational concerns have resulted in a way of life that is unfamiliar to most Canadians; where obtaining safe water is energy intensive, safety is not guaranteed, and where people get sick from water-borne illnesses and skin rashes.

For Neskantaga, this is nothing new. The First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory for nearly 25 years and they are not alone. Long-term boil water advisories are currently in effect in 56 First Nations across Canada – something the federal Liberals have pledged to eliminate by 2021.

While boil-water advisories are crucial, they leave many communities seeking short-term solutions that can be unreliable.

Boil-water advisories are a water management tool that represent a strong regulatory intervention in perceived or known emergency situations. There are two types of advisories contemplated by Health Canada: precautionary and emergency. Precautionary advisories are issued due to operational concerns with a water system that may cause unsafe water delivery to consumers. Emergency advisories are issued when microbiological contamination is present in water. In both cases emphasis is placed on preventing microbially contaminated water from reaching a community.

While an emergency advisory is an informative measure for communicating messages about acute water safety to consumers, the overuse and misuse of precautionary advisories is concerning. Precautionary advisories focus primarily on perceived operational matters affecting microbial risk. As a result, they provide a limited and skewed view of water safety as a whole, and do not communicate the wide range of concerns that may impact public health.

Studies have shown over 40 per cent of First Nation water systems have advisories in place due to operational concerns. A 2011 First Nation Water Report identified systemic, long-standing operational concerns that to overcome will require dedicated financial, personnel and capacity resources. A new approach for managing water and reducing risk to Indigenous peoples is needed to meet these significant challenges.

Achieving safe drinking water in First Nation systems requires a multi-faceted approach focused on improving underlying concerns in water systems, not temporarily removing drinking water advisories in communities. In 2006, an expert panel recommended the formation of a First Nation Water Commission to meet the challenges faced by First Nation systems. This inspired a collaborative approach with the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs leading to the formation of the Atlantic First Nation Water Authority (AFNWA) in 2018. The first of its kind, this Water Authority is dedicated to sustainability providing safe water to communities for generations, and is focused on addressing the root causes of drinking water advisories, not just removing advisories in the short term.

Water governance in Indigenous communities has suffered from a lack of clear, regulatory guidance inclusive of Indigenous perspectives and beliefs. Without proper engagement, water treatment design in Indigenous communities has not taken community goals for water operations and aligned them with the current best practices in the water industry. For example, the lack of access to STEM training that is designed for Indigenous learners and is appropriate for technical fields like water treatment has resulted in a broken system with insufficient capacity to address a basic need.

The AFNWA supports initiatives to address root causes of advisories. Through support from its First Nation communities and partnerships with water industry stakeholders, this collaborative approach encourages a sustainable set of procedures for water management, focusing on the issues that are relevant and urgent in community water systems. One of the initiatives of the AFNWA is a long-term education plan for Indigenous water professionals to govern, manage and operate water systems.

As shown to Canadians most recently in Neskantaga First Nation, the current approach has more than 25 years of inefficiencies and unsafe water. A new approach should be sought. While the solutions proposed by the AFNWA may not be suited to all communities, in the spirit of nation-to-nation building, fundamental shifts are required for all Canadians to access clean water.

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