Neglect in Neskantaga

Terra writes*

Canada, in the eyes of most foreigners and nationals, is a developed country with an abundance of water, which features in tourism advertisements highlighting the rainforests on the West Coast, the azure glacial lakes of the Rockies and the white-water rivers of the Yukon. No matter the region, there is likely a corresponding aquatic pastime: perhaps you grew up kayaking in BC, playing ice hockey in Québec, or canoeing through the many lakes and rivers of Ontario.

For Canadian First Nations*, however, water goes far beyond tourism and recreation. It is a deeply sacred element, both intrinsically and as a resource that sustains many traditional cultural and subsistence activities. However, it is also the source of much pain and anger. Currently, there are 57 long-term drinking water advisories in Canadian First Nations communities. Ranging from boil-water advisories, where water must be boiled before consumption, to do-not-use advisories, which prohibit all household water use, the advisories have all lasted for at least a year. The longest, in Northern Ontario’s Neskantaga First Nation, has lasted for the past 26.

Due to the legal and political circumstances of Canadian colonization, the federal government has a duty of care to First Nations [pdf], making them responsible for First Nation reserves. In Neskantaga, this led to a relocation to a new settlement in the 1980s, under promises of better infrastructure, including houses with plumbing and clean drinking water. At first, things seemed better: in 1993 a water treatment plant was constructed by the government, and things seemed hopeful.

By 1995, however, it was clear things weren’t working. Tests came back showing the presence of chlorine and other chemicals, including known carcinogens, in the water. The water treatment plant, which relied on a low-filter, natural sand method, was not disinfecting the water well enough.

Since then, the remote community has relied on boiling water and receiving weekly shipments by plane (it has no vehicle access except for winter ice roads). The average household receives much less bottled water than one needs for drinking, meaning that they must boil almost all their water. Babies, toddlers, and the elderly are also not supposed to bathe in tap water, meaning that water used to clean them must come from bottles or be boiled and then cooled prior to bathing. The water shipments alone are estimated to have cost the federal government C$1 million.

In recent years, the federal government has upgraded the water treatment plant to a new chemical-assisted system, but the unfinished project is plagued by mismanagement and poor contracting. This is due to procurement policies that require First Nations to choose the lowest-bidding contractor for projects, regardless of the contractor’s project record. Water contamination and further infrastructural issues led to two evacuations in late 2020, which required airlifting and housing nearly 400 people in hotels for weeks.

The underlying issue continues to be a lack of government attention and investment, as well as ongoing conflict over jurisdictional ambiguities between the federal government and the Province of Ontario. Promises of action and expressions of regret have come from both governments, but, as of January 2021, little has actually changed.

Bottom Line: The water security and the well-being of Canada’s First Nations are not high enough on the Canadian government’s priority list to warrant the investments in infrastructure needed to provide clean drinking water.**

*The predominant indigenous Canadian peoples south of the Arctic Circle.

** For reference, the Trudeau government has spent C$16 billion on buying an unpopular, floundering oil pipeline whereas the costs of upgrading the water infrastructure of every First Nation in the country is estimated at C$3.2 billion.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Neglect in Neskantaga”

  1. Hi Terra,
    This was such an interesting read. I never knew that the Canadian government treats the First Nations so badly. I was especially shocked about them not receiving enough water necessary for their basic needs. It seems to me that the shortage of water is caused by poor jurisdiction and governance. It gives the impression that the Canadian government simply does not care about the First Nations. I am wondering if this impression is correct and why the government does not provide (enough) clean water.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment on this Emma! It really is surprising for a lot of people. I would agree with your conclusion that the lack of drinking water access is due to poor governance, and, to some extent, jurisdiction. First Nations drinking water access is simply not getting the oversight and funding it needs to fix water treatment systems on reserves. As you correctly stated, this is rooted in the government not caring enough, which is a byproduct of racism and colonial institutions.

  2. Hi Terra,
    I really enjoyed your article on the problematic of water management in Canada and subsequent issues faced by First Nations. It was very clear and structure and gave an appropriate overview of the context. As you said yourself, this issue is quite unknown to the public which I found particularly surprising considering the gravity of the situation. Water should be a priority in any policymaking because it comes back to essential biological needs. What do you think are the reasons behind this poor acknowledgement? Economic, historical or maybe just carelessness? Moreover, has there been any outside intervention (like NGOs or national protest) raise awareness about this discriminatory situation and maybe bring some progressive change?

    1. Hi Adeline! I think that the poor acknowledgement of this from the government is a combination of unwillingness to devote adequate amounts of money to the situation, as well as biases rooted in Canada’s colonial history. There is a long history of not caring about indigenous people or prioritizing their needs and this continues to be visible here. Issues with jurisdiction (whether responsibilities are provincial or federal) also don’t help, but ultimately the federal government has a fiduciary duty to Neskantaga and is responsible. There has been little outside intervention about this which, in a lot of ways, is symptomatic of the same racism and colonialism in the settler population. However, the Canadian news media has consistently reported on Neskantaga – it has become a bit of a poster child for the other 56 reserves that are also under water advisories.

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