Water Rights and Wrongs: Safe Drinking Water Remains a Distant Hope for Residents of Black Tickle and Many Other Indigenous People in Canada

By Hanrahan, Maura | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Water Rights and Wrongs: Safe Drinking Water Remains a Distant Hope for Residents of Black Tickle and Many Other Indigenous People in Canada


Hanrahan, Maura, Alternatives Journal


"People know the water is not fit. But there is nothing else to get. It doesn't taste proper. Sometimes it leaves a brown scum.... That's where you get your sickness ... from the water. There's a lot of stomach sickness, stomach flus, vomiting and diarrhea."

--Black Tickle resident (1)

A SHORT, STOCKY, middle-aged woman walks slowly down a gravel road, a four-foot pole across her shoulders, a bucket of brownish water hanging off each end. This is Black Tickle, Labrador--a fly-in Metis (2) community of 268 people on the Island of Ponds. Despite its name, Island of Ponds is unable to support significant water use. The island is glaciated and consists mostly of igneous rock with little sediment cover, insufficient to support trees. Its 366 shallow ponds are vulnerable to contamination from animal waste.

In summer, residents rely on shallow community wells that sometimes run dry. In winter, they travel by snowmobile and komatik (Inuit sled) to fetch buckets of water, thus incurring significant costs. Not surprisingly, their level of water use is much lower than that of Canadians in general. When the community wells are in use, the average person in Black Tickle uses 112 litres of water daily, compared to the 326 litres used by the average Canadian. In winter the figure drops to 51 litres for those with holding tanks and to 25 litres for those without. Water here is extraordinarily expensive; 1000 litres cost $48.70 in 2000-56 times the cost paid on average by Canadians.

Such costs bring difficult decisions for low-income families:

[Y]ou've got to have heat in the house; you've got to have water; and you've got to have food. One of them's got to suffer. If you don't have heat this time of year in Labrador ... you're going to die. It doesn't matter how much water and food you have in it. If I had to make a decision on what was suffering the most. I would say it was food.

Households in Black Tickle are among the hundreds and perhaps thousands in Indigenous Canada (3) without running and/or safe water. Labrador, which consists entirely of unceded Indigenous land, has been neglected by governments throughout the post-invasion era. The Terms of Union between the Dominions of Newfoundland and Canada in 1948 did not contain any reference to the island's or to Labrador's Indigenous people; the result is that funding of Indigenous programs and recognition of Indigenous rights has been sporadic, ad hoc and minimal.

All this gives Canada a legislative excuse to ignore the Indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador. In the other Canadian provinces, the federal government acknowledges responsibility for First Nations reserves. But in 2001, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada admitted that it was still "continuing its efforts to assist First Nations in establishing basic water and sewer services for approximately 5000 homes currently without these services in a number of mostly northern communities." (4) Unequal access to potable water is just one dimension of the environmental injustices experienced by Indigenous people in Canada.

While there is no comprehensive picture of water safety and access in Indigenous communities nationally, available national data on First Nations reserves is not encouraging. In 1995, 211 of the water facilities in 863 reserves were in need of repair and/or had the potential to affect community health and safety. (5 ) One example is the Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nations community in Saskatchewan where a rising water table has forced half of the residents to abandon their houses. Three people have received electric shocks from their copper plumbing, mould crawls up walls, and rats and termites have infested water-logged dwellings. (6)

While some of these facilities have been repaired since the 1995 survey, there have been delays for many, in part because of federal-provincial conflicts over jurisdiction. (7) In 1999, 22 percent of First Nations people surveyed felt that no progress in reserve water and sewage systems had been made in the preceding two years. …

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Water Rights and Wrongs: Safe Drinking Water Remains a Distant Hope for Residents of Black Tickle and Many Other Indigenous People in Canada
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