Skip to content

Clean water for First Nations critical during the COVID-19 pandemic: Activists

Although some progress has been made – 97 advisories have been lifted since November 2015 – there’s still a long way to go
Autumn Peltier. (Supplied)

Activists in northeastern Ontario fighting for safe, clean water in First Nations communities across Canada are getting tired of broken promises. 

After five years and millions in spending, the Liberal government announced in early December that it would not fulfill its commitment to end all long-term water advisories on reserves by March 2021. 

Although some progress has been made – 97 advisories have been lifted since November 2015 – there’s still a long way to go. 

There are 59 active long-term water advisories in 41 communities across the country, and activists maintain that clean water should be a priority for the federal government, especially during a global pandemic. 

“Water is a basic human right, and nobody should have to beg for it. This is wrong, and it’s come to the point where I think it comes down to racism,” said Autumn Peltier, a teenage water-rights activist from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. 

“(Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau promised me personally that he was going to protect the water when I confronted him about his broken promises to my people. I would like to see the government stop making promises they can’t keep.” 

There are communities in Northern Ontario that have been under long-term water advisories for more than 25 years, she added. 

Neskantaga First Nation located about 450 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay has been under a boil water advisory since 1995. 

More than 250 members of the community recently had to be evacuated to Thunder Bay following a water emergency. They returned home just in time for Christmas, but the boil water advisory remains in place. 

“If water advisories like this were to happen in a place like Ottawa, just think about how fast the government would work to get clean drinking water again. It would probably be done in less than a week,” said Peltier. 

“Why is it that First Nations people have to wait so long for something so simple? Has it not been long enough?” 

The 16-year-old Water Warrior, who was named chief water commissioner by the Anishinabek First Nation in April 2019, gained international recognition for confronting Trudeau at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in 2016. 

Peltier has spoken about the water crisis in First Nations communities across Canada before the United Nations on more than one occasion, and she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize three years in a row. 

She was also the subject of a 2020 short documentary film titled The Water Walker which launched at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. 

Peltier said that fighting to protect the water has become even more important now that we are in a global pandemic. 

“Because of COVID-19, it’s more critical now than ever. This is probably the time the government needs to be acting on this even more effectively,” she said. 

“Clean water is needed not only for drinking, but for washing hands, brushing teeth, doing dishes and cooking. That’s simple sanitation. Many First Nations communities do not have access to simple sanitation.”

Sudbury MP Jamie West, who recently participated in a local campaign called Cold Water 4 Clean Water to raise awareness about the ongoing water crisis, was inclined to agree. 

“How do you wash your hands when you know the water isn’t clean to begin with? How do you wash your mask?” he said. 

Outbreaks in First Nations communities have been particularly severe in remote locations because of the strain on local resources. 

In fact, Canadian military troops are currently deployed in at least six northern Indigenous communities in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan to help bring COVID-19 outbreaks to heel.  

“This summer, when we were talking about First Nations communities and COVID-19, we were hearing about a lot of communities who had essentially blocked off the roads,” said West.

“They had really tight restrictions on access, and it was because they have no resources – they don’t have clean water and they don’t have medical facilities like we do in Sudbury. It would devastate their community to have an outbreak of COVID-19.”

On Dec. 12, West joined Cold Water 4 Clean Water campaign organizer Jordan Cheff as he jumped into the chilly waters of Lake Nepahwin in Sudbury to raise awareness about water advisories in First Nations communities. 

It was the final day of the month-long campaign during which Cheff jumped into cold water every day for 30 days. 

“Being from Elliot Lake, I grew up with a lot of friends from neighbouring First Nations communities like Serpent River, which has experienced water advisories in the past,” said Cheff about his reasons for launching the campaign.

“I was always trying to understand why they have different living conditions than I did. Having that exposure as a kid, and then starting to understand some of the inequalities and systemic racism that occurs in Canada, I knew that this isn’t something I would want to happen to my family or friends.” 

The idea for the campaign came to Cheff one night in a dream – when he woke up, he rolled over to tell his wife what he had to do. 

“She went along with my crazy idea for some reason,” he said. 

“After that experience, I started thinking about ways to grab people’s attention. Unfortunately, that’s the only way people will listen sometimes, if it’s informative and entertaining. So, I tried to do both.” 

Cheff took the Cold Water 4 Clean Water campaign to his hometown of Elliot Lake in early December where Mayor Dan Marchisella, Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha, and Serpent River First Nation Chief Brent Bissaillion joined him to take the plunge. 

“We were all hopeful that Justin Trudeau was going to keep his promise to First Nations communities, and of course, that hasn’t happened,” said Cheff.  

“Pledging another few billion dollars towards trying to solve the problem is not enough because we don’t know how long the Liberal government will be in power. I hope to continue to raise awareness and bring this issue to the forefront so that we can keep it on people’s minds and push the government to take action.”  

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced that the feds would pledge an additional $1.5 billion to finish the work of ending all long-term water advisories on First Nations when he announced that the government would not meet its deadline. 

The funding is in addition to the $2.19 billion that the government already set aside. 

It will be targeted to three key areas: ongoing support for operations and maintenance of water infrastructure, new infrastructure, and support for projects that were halted or delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the future, West said that he would like to see the province become more proactive in dealing with water advisories in Ontario. 

“There is no leadership right now when it comes to Indigenous relationships. We still have a ton of work to do, and I think this whole, hey, we did our best, but we didn’t get there, is unacceptable,” he said. 

“You wouldn’t accept it from any business or any other organization, and we shouldn’t expect it from the government. We need to develop a concrete plan to tackle this issue, and then we just need to take action.”

Once the problem is solved, he added, then the provincial and federal governments can figure out who pays for what.  

Peltier hopes to continue building her platform and working with Indigenous leaders and youth in the new year to address the systemic racism at the heart of this issue and continue working towards protecting the water. 

Right now, she is choosing her courses carefully in high school as she begins to plan for her university applications. 

Her ambition? To study law and political sciences with the hopes of becoming a politician herself one day. 

“I want to be a politician so I can be the government. I can be a government that actually keeps those promises or something,” she said. 

- Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative, Sudbury Star

What's next?

If you would like to apply to become a Verified reader Verified Commenter, please fill out this form.

About the Author: Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, a Government of Canada program, at the Sudbury Star.
Read more