First Nations want federal party co-operation, commitment to clean water

·3 min read
Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Chief Dylan Whiteduck says people in his community have been unable to drink their tap water for decades. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Chief Dylan Whiteduck says people in his community have been unable to drink their tap water for decades. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Every Wednesday drinking water is delivered to the home of Dylan Whiteduck, chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg near Maniwaki, Que.

His home, which is just a 90-minute drive from Parliament Hill, used to belong to his grandmother, and for years the water coming from the tap has been unsafe to drink.

"All these politicians live on our unceded traditional territory in Ottawa. ... So close to us, [yet] we don't have access to this clean drinking water," said Whiteduck, who partly blamed unsafe levels of uranium in the well water.

Kitigan Zibi was settled by the Algonquin people in the mid-1800s and since then, municipalities around this reserve have built drinking water systems. According to Whiteduck, though, about 300 homes in his community remain under "do not consume" orders.

The First Nation has developed plans that would see more homes get clean water, but Whiteduck says the project hasn't begun.

"The commitment just wasn't there, which is disappointing," he said.

Submitted by Dylan Whiteduck
Submitted by Dylan Whiteduck

Federal parties vow to end advisories

Clean tap water continues to be an issue for 32 First Nation communities across the country, according to data from Indigenous Services Canada last updated on Aug. 28.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau pledged to end water advisories in Indigenous communities by March 2021, but that target was missed. The Liberals then said they still plan to end all advisories, but have not released a new target date.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has promised to make the issue a priority if his party forms government, while the Conservatives have called the lack of safe drinking water in Indigenous communities a "national shame," vowing to end all advisories.

The Green Party promised to end all advisories "by investing and upgrading critical infrastructure to ensure safe water access in every community," while the Bloc Québécois pledged to work with Indigenous communities on a "nation to nation" basis.

Water works starting to flow

On the Tyendinaga First Nation between Ottawa and Toronto, tens of millions of dollars have been spent to pipe water to homes and businesses on the reserve, and yet not all residents have clean water.

"There is a lot of work to be done," said Don Maracle, chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte.

"Historically, First Nations are way behind in terms of development with infrastructure because the file had been neglected."

Maracle did praise the federal government's work on his territory over the past six years and recently water lines were installed into 146 homes, while more construction could soon be underway.

"We currently have a $30-million commitment from Infrastructure Canada to put water lines on other parts of the territory, and we hope to be able to go to tender with that this fall, with construction in 2022," said Maracle.

Swing ridings

Tyendinaga and Kitigan Zibi each sit in federal ridings without an incumbent that are also considered swing ridings, having been held by various parties over the past decade.

Kitigan Zibi sits in the riding of Pontiac, which was held by a Conservative cabinet minister during the Harper years before switching to NDP as part of the "orange wave" in 2011. The governing Liberals have held the seat for the past six years.

Tyendinaga sits within Hastings-Lennox and Addington, which became a new riding in 2012. The Liberals won in 2015, but the Conservatives took the seat in the last election.

Both chiefs say they're willing to work with whichever government gets into power.

"Every federal leader that's running in the election right now has committed to fix them," said Whiteduck. "Let's work together, as a country, and fix the problem."

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