Safe drinking water an issue for many Aboriginal communities

The panel discussed safe water issues and more on Nov. 16 (Juan Cabrejo/The Omega)

Clean and safe drinking water for Aboriginal communities across Canada was the topic of discussion at the Nov. 16 Storytellers Gala. The event, run by TRUSU’s Equity Committee, marks the eighth year of the Storytellers Gala.

TRUSU’s Aboriginal representative, James-Dean Aleck, hosted the event and directed questions at the panelists. Aleck noted at the start of the event that, since July 31 of this year, 109 long-term and 46 short-term drinking water advisories had been issued to 107 Aboriginal communities across Canada. This number doesn’t include communities in the territories or the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

TRUSU invited a number of experts in the field of water safety, health and Aboriginal issues to come speak at the event. Sylvia Struck spoke on behalf of the First Nations Health Authority and Lisa Clark represented Urban Systems.

Chief Francis Alec of the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation brought his own experiences in dealing with the issue to the table, while Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, a TRU social work sessional instructor, provided comment on both societal damage caused by not having fresh drinking water as well as solutions to the problem. Ruth Madsen, a staunch environmentalist here in Kamloops, attended to give her thoughts on the issue.

While some panelists had conflicting opinions on the accuracy of the some of the statistics presented, all agreed that unsafe drinking water is a problem that disproportionately affects First Nations communities here in Canada.

Policy Alternatives Canada has stated that 73 per cent of First Nations water systems in the country are at high or medium risk of contamination. When water is this contaminated, it threatens more than just personal health and the environment, according to Aleck.

“This issue is crippling our culture,” he said. “The people that always suffer from this are the children. Where I grew up, the water made me itchy. I’ve still got scars from all the itching.”

Clark echoed a similar sentiment, stating that unsafe drinking water can take a “psychological toll” on communities.

“These people don’t feel confident in their water systems,” she said. “Part of having pride in your community is knowing that your water is safe for your children.”

Currently there are three types of different drinking water advisories in Canada: boil water advisories, do not consume advisories and do not use advisories. Some of these communities aren’t even able to use the water for firefighting, said Chief Alec.

“You hear all the disasters that come from having no running water or water protection,” Alec said. “People wonder why children on reserves die in fires. Well, there is no water to fight the fires. There is no structure there for water protection.”

When it came to solutions to the crisis, the panelists universally agreed that the federal government isn’t doing enough. In fact, McNeil-Seymour doesn’t think that First Nations communities should even be looking to the government for a solution.

“We don’t have a word for ‘please’ in Secwepemctsin language. That’s considered begging,” McNeil-Seymour said. “Asking for help is begging in my perspective. We need to stop with the colonial government. This is unceded territory. We have enough young minds here to figure it out.”

Though panelists differed on opinions in asking for government funding, all noted that solutions coming from within First Nations communities are likely to be the best options.

“First Nations must be at the table when these discussions on watersheds happen,” Struck said. “We need to support innovative solutions coming out of First Nations communities.”