Thirsty For Change: It Is Time To Bring Clean Drinking Water To Canadian Reserves


A woman pants as she sets down two heavy jugs of water to wipe the sweat from her brow. Her muscles ache but she picks the jugs back up and continues on her journey home for, without the water, her family will not be able to drink, bathe, or wash dishes.

This woman does not live in a remote community in Sub-Saharan Africa. This woman lives in Canada, 30 minutes outside of Hamilton Ontario – and she is not the only one who lacks access to clean drinking water in this country.

The Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, located in Southern Ontario, is home to approximately 13,000 residents though only nine percent of those living on the reserve have access to clean water. Dawn Martin-Hill has lived on the reserve for over 35 years and is one of the few community members fortunate enough to be connected to a water purification plant, providing her house with clean tap water.

The $41 million water purification plant was installed in 2013 though funds to maintain the plant and its services have slowed significantly in the past five years. Martin-Hill says she is hesitant to make public calls for more funding in fear of playing into the stereotype held against Indigenous people.

“It perpetuates the stereotype that we do nothing for ourselves and wants everything done for us.”

In Manitoba, on the Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation reserve, one woman drives over 70 kilometres to pick up clean drinking water for elders and single mothers without access to a vehicle to get the water for themselves.

The government has promised to provide Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation with $5 million for a new water treatment facility. In reality, the reserve receives $10,990 annually which is nowhere near enough to cover the cost of the new facility. Instead, the money is being used to purchase bottled water.

In 2015, The Canadian Liberal government made the pledge to eliminate boil water advisories across all of Canada by the year 2021, a promise which is beginning to seem like a pipe dream for many communities. There are currently 66 reserves under boil water advisories though Health Canada suggests that number is closer to 100. The process is estimated to cost approximately $1.2 billion alone for the installation of the treatment facilities. Future maintenance is estimated to be around $4 billion.

The lack of clean drinking water on reserves is only the tip of the iceberg when considering the injustices faced by Canada’s Indigenous population. The issue is part of a much larger narrative regarding the country’s failure to support these marginalized communities.

Statistically, reserves see a higher number of cases of drug and alcohol addiction than the rest of the nation. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Health Canada refused to send a truck full of hand sanitizer to a Canadian reserve out of concern that the community members would try to drink it. The government saw an issue, and rather than providing adequate support for those struggling with addiction, chose to further draw the line between “us” and “them”.

Health Canada’s ignorance during that medical crisis did not end there. A doctor on a Manitoba reserve was enraged when he opened a shipment of what he believed to be vaccinations and other medical supplies required to prevent and treat H1N1 and instead unpacked dozens of body bags. That particular event echoed across the nation with a clear voice that said Canada simply does not care.

Suicides among Indigenous youth is another serious issue that has yet to be addressed on a national level. Many young children living on reserves struggle with mental illness yet there is little to no support available for these individuals. Martin-Hill expresses frustration and recognizes the toll intergenerational trauma can take on one’s mental health.

“The pain that they carry beyond historical trauma is the fact that they know this country simply doesn’t care about them as an Indigenous youth.”

This country, which is so rich in opportunity, has been turning the other cheek to issues that have persisted for decades. For a nation which boasts diversity and acceptance, we still stand divided.

Where do we go from here?

We must equip Indigenous people with the agency required to spark a revolution. The approach we as Canadians take to combat these issues must not be paternalistic but rather, we must educate ourselves on the reality faced by Indigenous populations. We cannot continue to praise politicians and public figures for doing the bare minimum and throwing money at Indigenous communities to reconcile for horrific past events. How many children will have to be buried by their parents before we realize that this issue has less to do with money, and everything to do with basic human rights?