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Fresh Water – the truth for Aboriginals communities in Canada

Written by Negar Naghshinehpour

Ecological Economics

Water covers over two-thirds of our planet, yet, less than 3% is freshwater suitable for consumption [1]. Certain countries are water-rich, while many others are facing water scarcity. The inadequate access to water gives rise to disease, with shigellosis being the most prominent bacterial infection resulting from poor water quality [2]. Many of us who live in a developed country has the fortune of freshwater flowing from our kitchen taps, however, that is not always the case. Canada although perceived as a water-rich country still faces challenges in accessing clean water; specifically for those who identify themselves as Aboriginals. I believe the Aboriginals’ limited and poor access to freshwater is a result of the unfair distribution of funds and land to the Aboriginal communities in Canada.

In Canada, there are three main groups of Indigenous people who are collectively called Aboriginals and are considered the early settlers of Canada [3,4]. Indigenous communities in Canada are 90% more likely to be in areas without piped water routes and over half the water systems on their lands pose a medium to high risk of contaminants [2]. In turn, many Aboriginals have to obtain water via buckets from local water sources that are typically unmonitored and untreated [4]. To make things complicated, Canada does not have a national governance system enforcing drinking water standards [5]. This means there is no overarching right which allows everyone to access clean water. Daly describes distribution “as the division of the resource flow, as embodied in final goods and services, among alternative people” [6]. Examples of resource flow can be in the form of land, wealth, or income. On the other hand, fair distribution widens the concept and states that the resource must be equally distributed within a certain degree of inequality that is deemed socially acceptable [7].

The federal government of Canada is responsible for providing funding aid, however, the communities themselves are responsible for the delivery of water treatment plants [7]. Indigenous communities cannot deal with maintaining and operating water systems when funding of federal dollars (per capita) is less than half of what non-aboriginal communities receive. [4] This illustrates Dalys notion of unfair distribution as the distribution of funds among different people is not taken into account [6]. The unfair distribution of funds means that chiefs and band councils only have 80% of what they need to design, build and operate water systems and are forced to come up with the additional 20% [4]. Seemingly unproblematic, but raising 20% is challenging because aboriginal communities are in rural areas where economic activity is low due to remoteness. Many communities are then forced to dip into education and child welfare programs for example to get the remaining funds [9]. The complexity of inadequate funds is long-standing: section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 grants the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over Indian lands, allowing them to bypass provisional regulatory water standards [10]. Because the federal government is not obligated to protect the water on Aboriginal land, any expenditure to clean or monitor the water fails to be funded properly [10,11] Ultimately, due to the unfair distribution of funds, Aboriginals have limited access to clean water because they cannot afford the necessary water systems.

The unfair distribution of funds also means communities do not have enough money to spend on training programs or hiring of technical professionals. An Indigenous community in Ontario, for example, has been on a boil-water advisory for two consecutive years [9]. This meant that their tap water needed to be boiled before consuming. The boil-advisory occurred as a result of a local water operator not adequately trained by the government officials and thus not performing standards properly [9]. Expensive water systems would be less of a problem if aboriginals were situated in clean water-rich areas. Unfortunately, the unfair distribution of land is another contributing factor to the problem. Issues with the quality of water first emerged when Indigenous people were first displaced and moved onto reserved lands that had poor water [4]. Many aboriginal communities were given areas where their primary water source is groundwater, which is vulnerable to contaminants [3].

We can see that the challenge Indigenous communities face in Canada is complicated but that does not mean we can turn a blind eye to it. The Indigenous people require more equal distribution of funding for their water plants compared to the rest of Canadian citizens. Progress can be done by brining awareness in repealing old acts from the constitution that prevent the federal government in adequately looking after Aboriginal water supply. Furthermore, the federal government should take an active role in understanding the needs of the communities. Finally, I believe we need to foster relationships among non-aboriginal technical professionals and the local bands and councils, allowing them to work together in providing access to water.



[1] Gude, V. G. 2017. ‘Desalination and water reuse to address global water scarcity’, Reviews in Environmental Science and Biotechnology. Springer Netherlands. 16(4), pp. 591–609. 

[2] Adelson, N. 2015. ‘The Embodiment of Inequity. Health Disparitie in Aboringial Canada’, Canadian Journa of Public Health. 135(2006), pp. 1–14.

[3] Hanrahan, M. 2017. ‘Water (in)security in Canada: national identity and the exclusion of Indigenous peoples L’ (in)sécurité de l’eau au Canada: l’identité nationale et l’exclusion des peuples indigènes’, British Journal of Canadian Studies. 30(1), pp. 69–89.

[4] White, J.P., L. Murphy and N. Spence. 2012. ‘Water and Indigenous Peoples: Canada’sParadox’. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 3 (3).[Online]. [Accessed 14 November 2019]. Available from:

[5] Auditor General, 2011, ‘The 2011 status report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons – Chapter 4: Programs for First Nations on reserves’ (Ottawa: Government of Canada). [Online]. [Accessed on 15 November 2019]. Available from:

[6] Daly, H. E. 1992. Allocation, distribution and scale: towards economics that is efficient, just and sustainable. Ecological Economics. 6(3), pp.185-193. [Online].[Accessed 14 November 2019]. Available from:

[7] Daly, H., & Farley, J. 2004. Ecological economics : principles and applications .Washington, D.C: Island. Chapter 22

[8] Morales, S. N. 2006. A glass half empty: Drinking water in First Nations communities. In: J.White, S. Wingert, D. Beavon, & P. Maxim (Eds.), Aboriginal policy research (Vol. 3: Moving forward, making a difference, pp. 161-185). Toronto, ON: Thompson Educational Publishing.

[9]  Murdocca, C. 2010. There is something in that water: Race, nationalism, and legal violence.Law & Social Inquiry. 35(2), pp. 369-402.

[10] Auclair, N. 2010. ‘Bill S-11: The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations’, American Journal of Alzheimer’s Care and Related Disorders. 1(4), pp. 6–7. 

[11] Basdeo, M. and Bharadwaj, L. 2013. ‘Beyond Physical: Social Dimensions of the Water Crisis on Canada’s First Nations and Considerations for Governance’, Indigenous Policy Journal. XXIII(4), pp. 1–13. Available from:




Negar Naghshinehpour

MSc Sustainability & Consultancy