The Canadian government has violated its human rights obligations toward First Nations people by failing to solve the rampant water crisis on reserves across the country, a new report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch concludes.
From July 2015 to April of this year, researchers with the international rights group investigated how the lack of clean running water affects hundreds of people living on five First Nations reserves: Batchewana, Grassy Narrows, Shoal Lake 40, Neskantaga and Six Nations of the Grand River. They also conducted a water and sanitation survey at 99 households with 352 people, and found rampant health problems among those living without sanitary water for drinking and bathing.
"Many households surveyed by Human Rights Watch reported problems related to skin infections, eczema, psoriasis, or other skin problems, which they believed were associated with water conditions in their homes," states the 92-page report entitled "Make It Safe: Canada's Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis."
The report's lead author, Amanda Klasing, senior researcher in the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, and based in Washington, DC, told VICE News in an interview that the water situation for First Nations people on reserves in Canada had parallels to other such crises in nations in Africa, such as Kenya, and parts of Latin America. "We chose to examine Canada because human rights are indivisible ... and the suffering of someone here is the same as anyone else around the world without clean water to drink."
According to the report, a woman named Debora who lives in Grassy Narrows First Nation in western Ontario can't give her children regular baths, including her nine-year-old son who grapples with a painful skin infection. Her reserve, home to just under 1,000 people, is under a "do not consume" warning by the government, meaning their tap water is unsafe, and residents are live on a limited supply of bottled water. On top of that, the water wells that serve the community have been found to be contaminated with high levels of uranium.
"My kids miss one day, bathe every two days," Debora told Klasing. "If my son has a cut, [it] will turn into a rash and I have to take him to the clinic to take antibiotics. So, my son misses a lot of school," Debora states. "I sponge him with bottled water from the jugs, clean him that way."
For Klasing, whose has focused heavily on women's rights in Haiti and sexual violence in Colombia, it's stories like Debora's that show the heavy toll the water crisis has taken on caregivers on reserves, especially women.
"They are really struggling, especially. They feel an immense weight to prevent their family members from being exposed to the contaminants in the water," she said, pointing to one woman on a reserve who puts Clorox bleach in the bathing water of her husband to prevent his open sores from becoming infected.
'We chose to examine Canada because human rights are indivisible ... and the suffering of someone here is the same as anyone else around the world without clean water to drink.'
Even though many skin infections and other health problems have yet to be causally linked to the water crisis, many members of the communities reported that "the lack of clean water translates into poor hygiene," which is associated with infections and other illnesses. Some people become frustrated and drink the water without boiling or otherwise cleaning it.
The reports notes that even when bottled water is available on some reserves, it can weigh around 44 pounds, and is therefore an unsustainable solution as people with disabilities, children and pregnant women can barely lift and carry them home.
"I found their struggle, their extra worry, their added burden was surprising to me and moving to watch," Klasing added. "It's not just about making sure that people get safe water to drink in a bottle. It's about alleviating the immense stress that communities feel when they don't have safe water."
Taking a strikingly different approach from the previous Conservative government, which was heavily condemned for underfunding and ignoring the water crisis on reserves, the newly-elected Liberal government announced it would spend an unprecedented $1.8 billion on water infrastructure for First Nations over five years, and more than $140 million to monitor water quality.
However, Klasing says this could be insufficient to eradicate drinking advisories and provide what's needed on reserves to ensure clean water. Her report states that there are no regulations in place to oversee drinking water and sanitation on any First Nation reserve in the country, and only the federal government has the authority to pass such regulations.
And based on billions of dollars invested over a number of decades by previous governments, the Liberals are at risk of falling into the same old patterns that have not solved the problem.
"The government's own assessments show that this is not enough," said Klasing. "The cost is higher than that. But it takes awhile to build systems."
"I think it's an excellent start, but I don't think this is where the commitments have to stop ... There needs to be a 10-year plan, and beyond, working towards the moment where we don't have long-term drinking water advisories. And after $1.8 billion we're not going to get to that point."
Among the report's 26 recommendations includes the creation of an independent First Nations water commission.
Even as the report is critical of the department, Canada's Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Affairs (INAC) told VICE News in an email that she welcomes the report, and cited the federal budget's commitment to improve on-reserve water access and waste management.
"We know that there is much more work to be done," Carolyn Bennett said. "First Nations expect, as do all Canadians, access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water."
"INAC will take the time to review the report, and determine the next steps to addressing their recommendations in partnership with First Nations communities."
Watch the VICE Canada documentary, Canada's Waterless Communities: Neskantaga: