The Inequity of Canada’s Own Water Crisis

Written by Jeff Golby:

I believe that clean water is foundational for humans to flourish. At Acts for Water we have seen that as access to clean, safe water is widespread, it increases education levels, economic development, and critical health improvements. I believe that everyone – wherever they live – deserves access to clean water. This is what has motivated me for the past 5 years, and Acts for the past 30 years to partner with Ugandan communities to see clean water brought to some of the economically poorest regions of the world. 

While I believe a more equitable world begins with water, I also realize this kind of equity doesn’t even exist in a country as free as Canada which faces its own water crisis. This is inexcusable. 

Currently there are 51 reserves on boil-water notice, and 73% of First Nations’ water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination. “Roxanne M., a young mother in Neskantaga First Nation, described the hour-long process she underwent daily to wash bottles for her 4-month-old infant with a rare heart condition. “It was a concern about how to bathe my son and how I was going to wash his bottles,” she said. The process to secure safe water for her baby’s bath took about two hours every other day. Washing her baby’s bottles to avoid contamination also took an hour—every day. “It makes me feel tired, exhausted. It’s stressful,” she said.” The Canadian Government itself doesn’t deny these claims. In fact, it lists an interactive map showing the Long Term Drinking Water Advisories on its site.

I would agree with minister Marc Miller, of Indigenous services when he says that “It’s unacceptable in a country (like Canada) that is financially one of the most wealthy in the world, and water rich, and the reality is that many communities don’t have access to clean water.”

When I first started with Acts for Water, I thought the equation for solving the World Water Crisis went something like this: Money + Technology (or Solution) = Water for All. Or put another way, if we could raise enough money, it would just be a matter of time before every Ugandans would have clean water. Just dump gasoline on the fire so to speak. I have since learned that it’s more complicated than that. The problem of clean water is not a technical one, it’s a social one.

In Canada, we know this all too well. Our Auditor General recently stated: “Simply put, investments of billions of dollars over decades have not translated into safe drinking water for thousands of First Nations persons living on reserves.”

At the end of July the Government announced a settlement worth $8 Billion dollars to compensate for boil water advisories. $6 of this $8 had already been agreed to, which leaves an additional $2 Billion to modernize the water infrastructure and compensate for damages. With this in place however, the Government still admits they will not reach their promise of clean water by the end of this year, and has “no credible excuse” for this (their words).

Whenever I’m on a TV show or advertising on social media, I receive regular letters and comments about “why don’t we help in our own backyard first?” I’ll try to offer three cursory responses here:

One:

I don’t believe humans need to focus on one issue to the exclusion of another. I personally don’t subscribe to the “take care of our backyard” philosophy, or rather, I view my backyard as the planet and I as a steward of this. With that frame, I can indeed care about, and take action on issues here in Canada and in Uganda.

Two:

I’m not necessarily convinced that clean water in Canada is a matter for the charitable sector to “solve”- or at least not financially, in the same way that roads, electricity or our own water here in Vancouver isn’t. Even the largest clean water charity in the world’s budget wouldn’t be 1% of what the Government just announced in funding. This is why we have chosen to spend your money on a segment of the population in a country where people earn less than $1 a day.  With that said, there definitely could be opportunities for education, for engagement and more – for charities to work alongside communities in this way. But consider why we don’t treat utilities in other parts of Canada as ‘charitable’ and why we think it should be charitable in this case. Is there something underneath this philosophy that needs to be addressed?  

Three:

Legally, our charity (Acts) is not able to act on the water crisis here in Canada. It’s not in our “purposes,” and no charity can lobby the government (see: WE Charity for an object lesson in this) which is probably part of what it would take to get the job done. I’m not even sure I can write this blog without some disapproval of the CRA.

All of us are responsible for educating ourselves, for listening, and trying to understand Canada’s water crisis. All of us are responsible for doing what we can to use our privilege to create a more just, more free, more equitable world. 

Thanks for reading.

– Jeff

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