'Clean Up the River,' Indigenous People Tell Justin Trudeau at the UN


Aboriginal communities are at the United Nations, accusing Canada of chronically violating their basic human rights as their fight for clean drinking water reaches the world stage.

Three First Nations — Grassy Narrows, Shoal Lake 40 and Neskantaga — are in Geneva, Switzerland to address the UN's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is reviewing Canada's human rights record.

The drinking water connected to all three communities has been deemed too unsafe to drink. In the case of Shoal Lake 40, residents have been on a boil water advisory for 17 years. For Neskantaga, it's been more than 20. And last year, the tiny Ojibway community of Grassy Narrows, in Ontario, declared a state of emergency when tests showed toxic chemicals in its water supply.

"Prime Minister Trudeau says that 'Canada is back' as a leader on the world stage," Grassy Narrows Deputy Chief Randy Fobister said in a statement. "Canada has not met its duty to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from Grassy Narrows' Ojibway culture when it allowed timber companies to log on Grassy Narrows Indigenous homeland, nor when the company dumped 10 tonnes of mercury poison into the river of the Grassy Narrows people. Clean up the river."

"Some of our children continue to be born with mercury poisoning and for decades nothing has been done to clean the poison from our river," Judy Da Silva, who spoke to the UN committee, said in a statement. "In the past Canada has not respected our rights but I still have hope that the tide will finally turn for us and that the prime minister will honor his word."

Related: Aboriginal Community in Canada Declares Emergency Over Unsafe Drinking Water

At the end of last year, there were 131 drinking water advisories in effect across 87 First Nations communities in Canada. Many are located in remote communities and rely on bottled water that is either flown in or transported by truck.

Grassy Narrows, which is home to about 600 people, sounded the alarm last year when it found mercury and DBPs (plasticizers also used in adhesives) present in the water. CBC News reported turbidity in the community's drinking water at 120 times the amount allowed by provincial rules.

Human Rights Watch also raised concerns with the committee about the drinking water conditions of Grassy Narrows.

The last time the UN body issued a report on Canada, in 2006, it expressed concern over "the significant disparities still remaining between Aboriginal people and the rest of the population in areas of employment, access to water, health, housing and education." The committee reviews whether countries that have signed on to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are complying with their obligations under the agreement.

During last year's federal election campaign, Trudeau pledged to do what it takes to ensure all First Nations have access to clean water within five years.

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