Solving Canada’s Water Advisories to its First Nations

A NextGen blog post by Gabrielle Wilson, Ryerson University
All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Gabrielle Wilson is a recent Environment & Urban Sustainability graduate from Toronto’s Ryerson University. This blog post examining the water crisis in First Nations communities in Canada is another meaningful NextGen article focused on our No Water No Life emphasis on Environmental Justice.

First Nations Water Crisis

Clean drinking water is indisputably one of the most basic human necessities. However, access to safe drinking water has been historically challenging for First Nation communities across Canada. Multiple drinking water advisories continue to be in effect in dozens of reserves.[mfn]Council of Canadians[/mfn] This lack of safe drinking water is a flagrant violation of human rights and presents perilous, life-altering danger to these communities. As a result, the government has been pressed by First Nation leaders and social justice organizations to address the issue. Unfortunately, resolution has often been delayed due to ever-changing political parties, political seasons and lack of funding. Currently, Canada’s Liberal Party is working alongside Canada’s First Nations to provide them with the necessary tools and resources to improve, maintain and self-govern the provision of safe drinking in their communities.

Examining the Issue

Map of First Nations in Canada’s Yukon Territory, courtesy of WikiCommons

First Nations’ access to safe water sources is a complex, highly politicalized issue. In Glass Half Empty, Jessica Łukawiecki explains that this complexity is due in part to the facts that municipal drinking water falls under provincial responsibility and that First Nations are not considered municipalities. Thus, there is no legal standard or legislation in place to enforce safe drinking water regulations in these communities. This leaves First Nations’ drinking water in a “regulatory void.”[mfn]Łukawiecki, Jessica[/mfn] While neighboring municipalities have reliable access to clean drinking water, many First Nation persons suffer from chronic illness and health crises as a result of contaminated water sources.[mfn]Human Rights Watch[/mfn]

These disparities are linked to the long thread of historical injustices First Nations have faced – including European settlement, colonialism, generational trauma and systemic racism.[mfn]Łukawiecki, Jessica[/mfn] Poor water quality across First Nation reserves often leads to the implementation of water advisories, solely a preventative measure to protect the community. Though some advisories can be resolved with basic routine maintenance procedures, others can last longer than a year.[mfn]First Nations Health Authority[/mfn] This issue has been normalized over the years due to inadequate funding for water treatment plants and infrastructure operations.[mfn]Łukawiecki, Jessica[/mfn]

Proposed Resolutions

Since 2016, a portion of Canada’s fiscal budget has been dedicated to long-term resolution.[mfn]Government of Canada[/mfn] Regardless of financial support, early planning and framework have presented flaws and progress made was not sustainable. Due to the many underlying socioeconomic and racial themes, present representatives noted that, “Funding alone will not resolve this issue.” Fortunately, a coalition of organizations – David Suzuki Foundation, Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians and Human Rights Watch – have united their efforts to monitor and support progress.[mfn]Łukawiecki, Jessica[/mfn]

Deana Machin of the Okanagan Nations Alliance during a 2007 interview with NWNL

A generous portion of funding has been allotted to improving water and wastewater infrastructure on First Nation reserves. There have been improvements of physical structures and formal training of community individuals to be water operators. Innovative service delivery techniques have increased productivity. Additionally, staff training and certification helps secure and sustain these communities’ access to clean drinking water for the foreseeable future.[mfn]Government of Canada[/mfn] Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) also strongly advocates for transferring water provision management to First Nation-led organizations. This governmental organization consigns control of systems by funding education, housing and family services. This equips communities with devices required to govern and control their own infrastructures and systems.[mfn]Government of Canada[/mfn]

Better collaboration between First Nations and provincial governments will allow for more informed decision-making and more viable approaches to context-specific issues.[mfn]Łukawiecki, Jessica[/mfn] Ending long-term drinking water advisories is one of the most essential steps to ensuring that equitable resources are available to the community. However, sustainable development and access will only be possible with the continuation of funding and support for studies, system design revisions, interim repairs, training and monitoring.[mfn]Government of Canada[/mfn]

A British Columbia mural depicts contrasts of First Nation versus modern Canadian environmental values

Looking Toward the Future

Since 2015, $4.27 billion has been invested in achieving clean water; 535 water treatment projects have been funded; and 107 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted.[mfn]Government of Canada[/mfn] Analysts have reported that the most successful innovations, investments and programs for resolving local water issues are those supported by Federal Government, yet led by First Nations.[mfn]Łukawiecki, Jessica[/mfn] Despite this brush of progress, many First Nations communities are still experiencing ongoing plights and hardships. The issues at hand present certain complexities that cannot be absolved by quick fixes. It demands those in power to prioritize better water infrastructure, as well as ongoing social and economic injustice.


Achieving clean drinking water in First Nations communities.” Government of Canada, May 21, 2021. Accessed May 25th by GW.

“Canada: Blind Eye to First Nation Water Crisis.” Human Rights Watch, Oct 2, 2019. Accessed May 20th, 2021 by GW.

Council of Canadians. “Safe Water for First Nations.” COC, 2019. Accessed May 20th , 2021 by GW.

“Drinking Water Advisories.” First Nations Health Authority, n.d. Accessed May 25th, 2021 by GW.

“Ending long-term drinking water advisories.” Government of Canada, May 25, 2021. Accessed May 25th by GW.

“Investing in water and wastewater infrastructure.” Government of Canada, Mar 25, 2021. Accessed May 25th by GW.

“Keeping water systems running and properly staffed.” Government of Canada, Feb 26, 2021. Accessed May 25th by GW.

Łukawiecki, Jessica. “Glass Half Empty?” David Suzuki Foundation, Feb, 2017. Accessed May 21st, 2021 by GW.

“Supporting First Nations control of water delivery.” Government of Canada, Feb 26, 2021. Accessed May 25th by GW.

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