Study looks at how water governance affects Indigenous communities

Herald file photo.

Water is essential to human life. A person can only go a few days without water before organs shut down and death occurs. Given this information, one might think that access to clean, safe drinking water should be a right, but there are some people living in Indigenous communities in Canada who have never had access to clean, safe water in their lives. And, not only is water essential for life, it’s seen as a sacred entity to Indigenous people.

The Morning Star Lodge released a final report on the Water Economics, Policy and Governance Network (WEPGN) in early 2020. WEPGN is an international network of economics academics, lawyers, artists, conservationists, and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers that focus on water resource management in Canada.

“Our lab picked the study up in late 2015,” said Marlin Legare, research assistant at the Morning Star Lodge. “As the study had actually been passed around a few times if that makes sense. It started with people at the UBC (university of British Columbia) and then was transferred to our lab. We had changed the phrasing of the questions from Western Canada to Saskatchewan and Indigenous women in Saskatchewan, is what we were looking at.”

According to the study, there were 91 long-term and 36 short-term drinking water advisories in 2018, affecting both personal and traditional access to water. Current water governance practices hinder traditional Indigenous uses of water, which negatively impacts Indigenous community’s spiritual health. Access to water is essential to holistic health as health encompasses all aspects of wellbeing such as emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical wellness. However, Indigenous communities have remained resilient despite these barriers in accessing this sacred source.

“The questions we were looking at were, “what are the evolving roles of Indigenous women in modern water governance policies and how do Indigenous women’s traditional roles impact modern water governance policies?’”

Traditionally, women have been seen as protectors of water and have maintained that role despite barriers to access water. Because water is seen as a living being, it is a women’s sacred duty to keep and protect the water for their community. Movements like Idle No More and the recent Netflix documentary There’s Something in the Water have brought more attention to the scarcity of access to water and the matriarchal duty to protect and care for water.

Women have kept up with traditional roles by maintaining responsibilities of protest against federal powers as well as fighting the private sector in regard to resource development.

Boil water advisories continue to remain in place in many Canadian Indigenous communities despite water being detrimental to all aspects of health. The safety of water in Indigenous communities has been compared to underdeveloped Countries even though Canada is a highly developed nation.

“One of the more major findings, I would say, that we had were that, a good majority of the lab found that it was their Indigenous leaders that had a higher level of concern for water governance in their communities,” Legare said of the study. “As where they felt entities such as federal or provincial jurisdictions or governments weren’t as concerned about the quality and quantity of water in their communities.”

The WEPGN final report references a paper published in 2013 called Beyond Physical: Social Dimensions of the Water Crisis on Canada’s First Nations and Considerations for Governance. In the report it states, “The term water governance highlights the importance of the impending threat of climate change and the resulting global water crisis (Schmidt & Matthews, 2014).  The control of water and its governance is highly selective and related to distinctive nations or territories.  As all are able to make independent decisions regarding water and its governance, considerations of location, social and economic climates, and culture play a role in this process.  Canada’s decentralized approach founded in the Constitution Act in 1867 and modernized in 1985 in the Canada Water Act, considers both federal and local levels of government when allocating responsibilities, jurisdictions, and policy.  Through discrepancies between local and federal government jurisdictions, there is a disconnect on consistent roles of governing water as a resource.  More specifically, Indigenous governing bodies are rarely regarded as equal governments and stakeholders in the decision-making process.  There is concern within Indigenous communities that federal and provincial governments disregard Indigenous spirituality and culture within the decision-making process of water governance meaning that governing bodies are often unconcerned of the changes in water quality that hinder the Indigenous ways of life (Basdeo & Bharadwaj, 2013).”

Federal and provincial governments collaborating with Indigenous communities could positively affect water management, conservation, and responsible resource management. Including Indigenous voices and the aspect of culture, including the sacredness of water and the roles women play in protecting it into the discussion of water governance, could bring a unique aspect. As there is an acknowledgement on behalf of the Canadian Government on the issue of accessibility of water in Indigenous communities, in order to combat this, the introduction of the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (SDWFNA) was put in place.

However, despite these efforts, regulation in the SDWFNA are still underdeveloped which exacerbates the ineffective treatment of wastewater. There are concerns from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) regarding these efforts and lack of meaningful consultation within the SDWFNA as many communities are not yet properly funded or lack the resources to meet regulations.

“People will get a water treatment plant in their community, but it won’t be setup with the proper infrastructure, resources, or labour for it,” Legare said. “And those water treatment plants will be non-functioning within a matter of months because there’s no foundation for it.”

Community members with boil water advisories are often left with buying filtered water in large jugs, which puts reliance of vehicles quite heavily as some need to travel off reserve to purchase the jugs of water. Those who rely on water jugs use the filtered water quite conservatively as the cost is quite high.

Morning Star Lodge has stated that they have gathered valuable insights into how traditional worldviews may have an impact on modern water governance practices by looking at the perspectives of Indigenous women as “keepers of the Water.”