Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN) in Northern Manitoba, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 2017, is one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government that seeks to have access to drinkable water recognized as a right and spur the federal government to do more for it and other First Nations under long-term water advisories.
“This lawsuit came out of that frustration and the aim is to recognize rights – a right to reasonable access, adequate access to clean drinking water on reserves so that we aren’t in this debate in the future about how much funding is needed and how much will get them there,” said Michael Rosenberg, one of the lawyers representing TCN and others in the lawsuit, which was first filed in November 2019, during a Zoom press conference in February
Actually going to court is not TCN’s preferred outcome, as that process could take years.
“The hope here is not litigation,” said NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose Churchill-Keewatinook Aski riding includes TCN, at the same press conference. “The hope here is for immediate action.”
The class defined by the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench includes any First Nation that was subject to a drinking water advisory lasting more than one year since 1995 as well as all of its members, said Rosenberg, who is also part of the legal team for a class action lawsuit on the same subject filed in federal court by Curve Lake First Nation.
First Nations have to opt in to be part of the lawsuit but their members are automatically included in the class unless they opt out.
“I wish many First Nations will rise up and join this,” said TCN Chief Doreen Spence, who thinks some may decide not to out of an instinct for self-preservation. “I know that many First Nations fear repercussions from Canada if they join the class action since Canada continues to exercise control over First Nations. Canada should provide First Nations with reassurance that they will not be prejudiced by Canada for standing up for their human rights and joining this class action.”
TCN’s boil-water advisory has been in place since May 5, 2017 and was classified as a long-term advisory after one year.
According to a January article in The Globe & Mail, the First Nation’s water issues began following a flood in the spring of that year and continue despite the federal government spending $12 million two year ago to upgrade the water treatment plant by adding an ultraviolet light phase to kill bacteria and viruses.
“We’ve been under a drinking water advisory for four years,” says Spence. “I feel that it’s Canada’s responsibility to provide [certain things] to all First Nations and clean drinking water is one of them.”
The Liberal government pledged in 2015 to end all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations in Canada by 2021 but said last year they wouldn’t meet that goal. There were 60 long-term water advisories in First Nations as of Nov. 1, according to a report from the auditor general of Canada, and 28 of them had been in place for more than a decade. Factors playing a role in this include the operations and maintenance funding formula not having been updated in the 30 years since it was developed, First Nations not having enough money to pay water treatment plant operators as much as other organizations like municipal governments can, and Canada lacking a regulatory regime that sets standards for First Nations water systems.
“Fifteen years after we first examined the issue, some First Nations communities continue to experience a lack of access to safe drinking water, “ says the auditor general’s Feb. 25 report, referencing the office’s first report on the subject back in 2005.
“Despite Tataskweyak leadership continually expressing their concerns about their drinking water, the government of Canada has repeatedly failed to take meaningful action in response” said Ashton in letters to prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and to United Nations special rapporteurs.
A potential solution to the water problem that TCN believes could be in place relatively quickly is building a pipeline to Assean Lake, which many people on the First Nation use for non-drinking water already because they believe that the water from Split Lake is giving them skin rashes from bathing in it even after it has been treated.
This plan was first studied in 2006 and another study was completed in 2019 but no action has taken place.
Rosenberg says water studies of Split Lake have shown that it isn’t fit for human consumption, due in part to the presence of three types of cyanobacteria (algae), which aren’t even detectable with the current tests used on First Nations water systems.
“The water treatment plant is not designed to remove all of those toxins,” he said.
A spokesperson for Miller told The Globe in January that the Indigenous Services department respects the right of First Nations to seek court intervention and said the department had spent $23.5 million on water and wastewater upgrades in TCN since 2016
When questioned about the issue in the House of Commons Feb. 16, Miller noted that these expenditures included a new lagoon, lift station, and distribution lines in addition to the treatment plant repairs and upgrades and the detailed source of water study.
“Our government continues to support Tataskweyak in the repairs and upgrades to their water system as the water quality does indeed continue to meet approved guidelines,” said Miller. “We will continue to engage with the community and get to the root of this problem.”