The governments that Canadian citizens depend on to protect drinking water are failing despite warning signals from places like Walkerton and Kashechewan, Ontario, says the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
Seven people died in 2000 after ingesting E. coli bacteria through Walkerton’s mismanaged water system, and more than 800 residents of the Kashechewan First Nation in Northern Ontario were evacuated last year after E. coli was discovered in drinking water there.
The discovery of radionuclides in well water in Champagne and E. coli bacteria in Carmacks has eroded faith in the Yukon’s water supply.
But despite the growing concerns, some provincial and territorial governments — and especially Ottawa — still use patchwork regulations to ensure water safety, said Anastasia Lintner, a lawyer with Sierra Legal who worked on the organization’s recent study, Waterproof 2.
“Why should the location of where a person lives make any difference to how their water is regulated for safety?” said Lintner.
The Waterproof 2 study found that Ottawa has failed to create country-wide drinking water standards, and that different parts of Canada are better off than others for water safety.
For that, the feds received an “F” in the study’s report card.
The Yukon didn’t fare much better.
Along with Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, the territory received a “C-” for water regulation and treatment, second lowest in Canada after New Brunswick, which scored a “D.”
The Yukon fared well on containment standards, and standards for labs that do water evaluation.
But improvement is still needed on water treatment, and the territory still lacks public reporting procedures, said the study.
Still, the Yukon has improved upon its “D” grade in the original 2001 Waterproof study, said Lintner.
“The big change is going to be in all of the proposed changes going on,” she said.
The Yukon government is looking at several proposals including legally binding water regulation, but those have yet to be made into law, she noted.
“If they are all implemented the grade will be even higher,” said Lintner.
Ontario received the highest grade in the study, an “A-,” and Nunavut and the Northwest Territories received a “C” and a “C+” respectively.
The Waterproof 2 study’s focuses on the federal government’s failure to act on water safety and the ramifications that has for First Nations people in Canada.
In the 2005 Auditor General annual report, the Commissioner of the Environment identified regulatory gaps for drinking water across Canada as something that needed to be closed to ensure every Indian Act band citizen has access to clean drinking water, said Lintner.
But despite a federal expert panel that travelled across Canada hearing concerns about water this summer, little more than talk has been the result, she said.
“In response to that gap, the federal government has not acted to fill it directly, they’ve just set out on this process by which they are consulting on what they might do about the regulatory gap,” she said.
“We’re calling on the federal government to take quicker action with respect to what’s going to be done.”
Though water safety issues in the Yukon are clustered in First Nations communities, there is less clarity about the role Ottawa will take in helping solve the problems, due to self-government agreements.
Citizens in Carmacks have had to boil their water for years after discoveries of E. coli in well water.
And seven of 12 wells tested in Champagne in September were found to contain high levels of radionculide contamination.
But First Nations bear responsibility for those services, said Dermot Flynn, associate chief negotiator at the Yukon Land Claims & Implementation Secretariat.
“I think the First Nations took over responsibility for that (water and its testing) with self-government,” said Flynn.
Former municipal-like services delivered by Ottawa to First Nations, like water, are now under the jurisdiction of each self-governing First Nation in the Yukon, he said.
And as part of the agreements, funding from Ottawa is provided to deliver the programs and services, he added.
But the agreements do not spell out what happens if, for instance, a First Nation delivering water to its citizens needs assistance or wants the federal government to re-assume responsibility, he said.
“In the self-government agreement, there is nothing that speaks to what happens in the event — in the worse case scenario, if a First Nation were to financially fail,” said Flynn.
“It doesn’t speak to what would happen then; it’s also silent whether they could ask Canada to re-assume responsibility for programs it has now determined it doesn’t want or can’t deliver.
“The document is forward-looking and doesn’t address those ‘what-ifs,’” he said.
In the wake of the discovery of radioactive well water in Champagne, the responsibility of each level of government — federal, territorial and First Nation — has been bandied about with little clarity, said Lawrence Joe, director of lands and resources for the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations.
“It needs to be addressed — the Champagne situation really brought that to the forefront for us,” he said.
There is a “huge vacuum” of responsibility and regulation for private wells between all three governments, said Joe.
The Waterproof 2 study didn’t look into the particular situation faced by Yukon First Nations, but may in the future, said Lintner.
“We didn’t investigate that in this particular report, but it’s definitely something very interesting we should think about following up,” she said