Adrian Sutherland is a singer, songwriter, recording artist, and the frontman and founder of roots-rock band Midnight Shine. He lives in Attawapiskat, on the remote coast of the James Bay.
It’s been one year since the water contamination crisis in my home community of Attawapiskat.
In July, 2019, the Attawapiskat Band Council notified residents that our tap water had tested positive for potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) – byproducts of the disinfection process created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials. We were told not to bathe in it, not to cook with it and not to inhale vapours from it. A state of emergency was declared.
This is our tap water that flows into our houses. It’s important to note we do not drink from our taps – and never have. Even when plumbing arrived in our homes in the late 1990s – it had first been brought to the community 20 years earlier, but only for teachers and hospital staff – even then, we weren’t able to drink tap water. We still don’t today. Attawapiskat has a separate system specifically for drinking water that is filtered through a reverse-osmosis system and distributed through two watering stations. Community members use these stations to fill up jugs, and that is how we get water for drinking and cooking.
During the state of emergency, community members were told our drinking water was still safe, even as rising levels of THMs and HAAs were registered there, too. Many of us decided it wasn’t safe to trust that source, and instead chose to draw drinking water from the river or lake, reverting back to how we got water growing up.
Seamus O’Regan – then the Minister of Indigenous Services – travelled to Attawapiskat last July, announcing that as a temporary measure, his department would allocate $1.5-million for a technical team to flush the water system and inspect the existing treatment plant to determine interim fixes. Attawapiskat’s drinking water source was also replaced as a precaution, which is a positive step, since the reverse-osmosis filtration system is heavily relied upon and has seen more use in the past year. But one year later, we still aren’t entirely sure the tap water is safe, and nobody seems to have answers. There is very little information available at the community level, or even online.
As my family and I struggled to come to terms with the crisis, I kept coming back to three core questions: Why did it take several days to inform us? How long had we been exposed to these chemicals? And what kinds of effects are they going to have on our children, our elders, our community?
This was going through my mind last July when I read then environment minister Catherine McKenna’s insensitive tweet about how clean her drinking water was. “There’s a lot to love about Ottawa – including our tap water!” she declared. “Did you know it’s rated among the best in the world? I’m always carrying reusable water bottles around to reduce plastic waste, so it’s good to know I can use Ottawa’s tap water when I need a refill.”
That was it – my breaking point! I responded on Twitter, telling her this wasn’t something to be proud of given the fact there are thousands of Indigenous people in Canada without access to water. Are we not a First World country? Are we not supposed to be the greatest country in the world? Let’s cut the bull and stop misleading the Canadian public and the world for that matter. Gord Downie said it best: “We are not the country we think we are.”
Suddenly, people were calling me an activist, because I started speaking out against poor water conditions in First Nations in this country. But how could I not speak? It’s what I live, every day. Let me tell you, when your basic human needs aren’t met, when you don’t know that your family is safe, when it’s one crisis after another, after so much time, it wears you down. After a lifetime, it becomes normal.
I don’t know how Canada has allowed these conditions to exist in First Nations communities for decades upon decades – and continues to allow it. It isn’t something for Canada to be proud of. It isn’t something for any of us to be proud of.
The things that have been done in Attawapiskat over the past year have been Band-Aid solutions to address short-term needs. While it’s understandable that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hindering much-needed work on the system, it would be nice to at least have some reassurance from our leaders that water issues will be addressed in Canada for the long term. It’s not surprising the federal government was able to suddenly pull billions of relief dollars for COVID-19, yet can’t ever seem to find money to fix the water crises in First Nations once and for all.
New crises always come up. People start to forget about old emergencies. Issues fade away. Life returns back to “normal.” And meanwhile, Indigenous people in Canada continue to struggle for basic human needs – until the next emergency and the next Band-Aid solution.
And on it goes.
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