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World Affairs

Canada’s Indigenous Water Crisis

By Amy Elyse Gordon
30 Jul 2018
Photograph of mountains and trees framing a lake

Canada is one of the world’s most water-rich countries. The Great Lakes, shared between Ontario and the US, account for eighteen percent of the world’s fresh surface water. And yet, many First Nations communities within Canada suffer from lack of access to clean water. There are currently 72 long-term boiling water advisories in effect on First Nations’ reserves. Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election platform included ending all such advisories by 2021. As of July 17, 2018, 67 such advisories had been lifted, while 34 had been added. At the same time, residents of the communities whose advisories have been lifted are concerned that lack of overhauling local infrastructure may endanger long-term prospects for clean water.

In the meantime, boiling water does not protect against all contaminants on First Nations’ reserves, such as uranium (one of the typical toxins found in Indigenous water supplies), along with coliform, E.coli, and the carcinogenic Trihalomethanes, according to a 2016 report by the international watchdog Human Rights Watch. Boil orders exact a particularly heavy toll on First Nations women, who deal with noxious water for everyday family consumption. Human Rights Watch interviewed mothers who expressed increased challenges. One mother spent up to three hours a day sanitizing water for infant bottles and baths, and another struggled to treat ongoing skin conditions of a child affected by waterborne toxins with the same contaminated water that caused the inflammation.

Deep-seated structural issues contributed to this ongoing health crisis in First Nations’ territories. One major causal contributor is the waste of industries operating on Indigenous lands. One community in Grassy Narrows is still plagued by health issues due to mercury dumped into the Wabigoon River by Reed Paper in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When already vulnerable communities are dumped with the ecological burdens of capitalism, the effect points to environmental racism — a legacy of settler colonialism.

Other structural factors are more complex in nature, revealing a pattern of institutionalized neglect. Canada lacks a coherent federal policy on water regulation, leaving vulnerable populations and territories unprotected, while companies like Nestle are permitted to extract up to 2.7 billion litres per year of fresh water. Meanwhile, water plants in First Nations’ communities fall short of provincial standards, leaving long-term devastation. Federal funding has, for decades, been insufficient to ensure proper infrastructure for water treatment on reserves.

These structural issues, along with the fact that Indigenous communities have been denied equal participation in governance, testify to the ongoing legacy of settler colonialism. Canada has dragged its feet in confronting its neo-colonial institutions, objecting for a decade to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before finally joining the other 144 signatories in 2016. Canada was also belated in joining the international community in acknowledging a right to clean water.

The causation is multi-pronged and structural in nature. Geopolitical and economic factors exacerbate an uneven division of power and resources. Neocolonialism is implicated, as are contemporary neoliberal capitalist modes of production. The consequence is marginalized Indigenous peoples bearing the brunt of environmental degradation, enduring steep human costs. A massive future project also threatens potentially catastrophic outcomes for already beleaguered communities. The Kinder Morgan pipeline project, recently bought by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, will encounter 1,355 waterways, putting Indigenous territories at further risk.

What role does ethics play in this situation? If we rely wholly on mainstream ethical approaches within philosophy, we may find a disastrously narrow scope for ethical concern. Carolyn Merchant’s Radical Ecology (Routledge 2005) describes two schools of ethics mainly represented in political theory and economics. The first is an ethics centred on the self (”egocentric ethics”) exemplified by individualists like Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith. The second is an ethic that embraces human society (Merchant cites the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, Bentham, and Peter Singer among others). Sandford and Phare (2011) draw from Merchant’s analysis, noting that in contemporary economic wisdom, water is reducible to a “resource” that can be exploited, with humans having priority access (and some humans or even corporations at the expense of others). They contrast this approach with Indigenous philosophies which embody a two-way relationship between humans and water, demanding of respect and concern. Merchant builds upon these Indigenous insights in her text, describing two much more recent ethical approaches with deep-seated parallels in many cultures, a cosmos-oriented or ”ecological ethics” and Merchant’s own paradigm, ”partnership ethics.” ”Partnership ethics” combines core features of ecocentrism and environmental justice in emphasizing the notion of relation and process as key elements. Unlike an abstract ecologism, ”partnership ethics” takes multicultural human communities into account while incorporating non-human and even non-animal members into the sphere of ethical responsibility.

The exclusion of First Nations’ communities from access to clean water is an example of how our philosophy towards water is shaped by the expedience of the few. Excluding whole populations of people and natural communities from the processes of decision-making, distribution, and conservation of water has dire consequences for marginalized communities of people, and far-reaching consequences for more-than-human ecological communities. Indigenous spiritual traditions suggest that not only are urgent human interests immediately at risk in our practices and institutions surrounding water’s use and infrastructure, but the very fabric of ecological systems and the earth itself are endangered.


Amy-Elyse Gordon, recent PhD graduate from Carleton University and formerly Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Ashoka University, specializes in ethics, social and political philosophy, Ancient Greek philosophy, and critical theory. She has researched poverty and the history of economics with the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and worked with Academics Stand Against Poverty. Her research has been presented at international conferences and published in conference proceedings, and she is currently converting her doctoral research on political emotions in ancient and contemporary philosophy into a book.
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