The End of the Line

Amid chronic underfunding, administrative red tape and a breakdown in trust, Alberta First Nations take their fight for safe drinking water to all levels of government 

Alberta Venture, March 2016

Photo Ryan Girard

Photo Ryan Girard


Early on a January morning, the sun over Lac Ste. Anne breaks from the clouds careening across the sky. Chief Tony Alexis, of the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation, grabs on to thorn bushes to steady himself as we descend the bank of a peninsula jutting out onto the frozen, snow-lidded lake. Lac Ste. Anne is the axis of manifold religions, languages and ancestries. Cree, Nakota, Sioux and Métis communities live along its perimeter and tens of thousands of people pilgrimage to the lake every third week of July to bask in its restorative water. It’s breathtaking – droves of pilgrims, a few in wheelchairs, a few with canes, walking assuredly into what the Nakota Sioux called Wakamne, God’s Lake. Some arrive barefoot; some sojourn on a horse-drawn wagon for weeks on end. But today, in the clutch of winter, we’re the only ones around, silhouetted against the sprawling vault of heaven.

Even in the summer, there are days when no one’s on the lake. Alexis says blue-green algae, a poisonous, soup-like slime, returns every year. Alberta Health Services issued a health advisory for Lac Ste. Anne this past July, just a day before thousands of pilgrims were set to arrive. As a child, Alexis could drink straight out of the lake and nearby springs, and it’s still the source for the community’s drinking water. “We take water from here, it comes into our water-filtering system and from there it goes into a reservoir,” he says, gesturing to a sky-blue facility northeast of the peninsula. But the algae, and a host of compounding factors, puts the water in jeopardy. “We used to have our own wells, but drilling for oil and gas, fracking, those kinds of things, are disrupting the aquifers,” he says. It means Alexis’s community is one of 19 in Alberta under a boil-water advisory, and that Alexis is at the forefront of a long-running national debate about unsafe drinking water.

Not long ago, Alexis returned from Gatineau, Quebec, where he spoke at a gathering organized by the Assembly of First Nations. In his capacity as Treaty 6 grand chief, he told delegates that almost half of the on-reserve homes in Alberta aren’t connected to water treatment facilities; that the issue of clean drinking water is inextricably linked to the issue of housing, which he called inadequate and unsafe; that the infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen. “Alexis is just one nation,” he told me. “When we look at the [Treaty 6] confederacy, we know that most of the communities are not getting the quality of water they deserve.”

He concluded by calling for a new water commission led by indigenous experts, to support advocacy and education on water issues and get to the root of why 20 per cent of First Nations in Canada are under a drinking-water advisory, why they can last for years, sometimes decades – Alexis’s began in 2007 – and why, despite billions in concerted spending, their frequency has increased. In January 2004, there were seven in the country. These days, usually there are more than 150. And of the provinces, Alberta has the second-highest percentage (87) of First Nations that have had at least one.

Drinking-water advisories – usually boil-water advisories, which mean the water supply is contaminated and that you have to boil your water before drinking it – aren’t unique to reserves. They do, however, appear there in large proportion: of all the drinking-water advisories in Canada in January 2015, almost 10 per cent were in First Nations communities, while aboriginals make up just four per cent of the population. For some households, an advisory means boiling water for 10 minutes, then refrigerating and storing it. Others have to trek across town to fill containers from a central water plant. For elders, it can be excruciating just to prepare a glass of potable water. Try this: Before you turn on your tap tomorrow morning, drive to the nearest neighbouring town; step outside your vehicle for the time it’d take to fill some jugs; return home and pretend to decant the water into a cistern; then take your first drink.

“It’s a complete burden,” Alexis says. “The water you have – you question it.”

Yet drinking-water advisories are symptomatic of deep-rooted issues around water management in First Nations. The funding model is clear-cut – in short, the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs funds up to 100 per cent of construction costs and 80 per cent of operational expenses for water treatment facilities – but its application is messy. Sometimes the issue is that the facilities are underfunded. Sometimes it’s difficult to find operators to work in remote locations. Sometimes it’s bureaucracy – under federal jurisdiction, drinking water involves Health Canada, Aboriginal ­Affairs and Northern Development, chief and council, and sometimes municipalities. There’s no homogenous ailment to be cured in one fell swoop. But there are variations on a theme: On many of these reserves, the traditional sources of water are corrupted and the systems that would sanitize it are at risk.

Some reserves in Alberta don’t have running water at all. At the Lubicon Cree community of Little Buffalo, northeast of Peace River, everyone used outdoor toilets and stored water in barrels, or bought bottled water, until two years ago. Now, there are 50 homes with their own cisterns and septic tanks, but the sewage lagoon, which was built solely for the school, isn’t big enough to service the entire town. And the rest of the community is still without sewage or water from the tap. Drinking water has to be trucked in from a pump house in Red Earth Creek or bought from Peace River. “We’ve been trying to target all the big families and the elders to equip them with water and sewer [systems],” says Billy Joe Laboucan, chief of the Lubicon Cree, “but we’ve only taken care of 25 per cent of the homes.”

Across Alberta, the conditions have led to degraded health conditions, which, as several chiefs noted, is a problem painstakingly difficult to tie directly to the water. But anecdotal evidence has accumulated. At a federal review panel in 2006, Tony Steinhauer, the water keeper of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, said his reserve had seen an uptick in cancers – in both children and adults – and diabetes, and that he’d been stonewalled in seeking statistics on the rates of the illnesses. Florence Willier, a health official from the Driftpile First Nation, said more than 200 people on her reserve had stomach problems like gastrointestinal issues or cancers. Driftpile did, in fact, have a state-of-the-art water system. But Willier said the federal government wouldn’t provide funding for an operator.

In 2014, four Alberta bands – the Blood Tribe, Sucker Creek, Ermineskin and Tsuu T’ina First Nations – filed a precedent-setting lawsuit against the federal government to force Ottawa to provide proper upgrades and support for water systems. (In November 2015, a Manitoba First Nation threatened to file a similar lawsuit.) Their claims argued that the government had breached its fiduciary responsibilities, violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that the substandard conditons restricted economic development. “We have a system that, in the last decade, hasn’t been properly maintained,” says Jim Badger, chief of Sucker Creek. “[There were] mice floating in the drinking water cisterns. And all this stuff is still happening. So we had to do something to challenge it.” Badger says the systems are still being shut down regularly.

Despite legislation like the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in 2013, and assessments – including a 2006 expert panel, a 2007 Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and a study by Neegan Burnside in 2011, which found funding was wholly inadequate – the conditions persist. The lawyer Clayton Leonard, counsel to the four bands’ lawsuit, released a report in 2012 that found 64 per cent of First Nations water systems in Alberta didn’t have fully certified operators. Twenty-six per cent were deemed “high-risk,” needing “immediate corrective action.” And a commission by the federal government found that $4.7 billion would be needed over 10 years, or $470 million per year, for water and wastewater systems to bring on-reserve water systems to the standards enjoyed by other Canadians. Yet since 2008, the government has committed just $165 million per year.

Is that the only reason these efforts have failed? The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was roundly condemned by indigenous leaders for its lack of consultation. “This legislation … absolves the Crown from any obligations under Treaty and fiduciary law,” Alexis says. Speaking of the Act, implemented during former prime minister Stephen Harper’s tenure, Badger said, “[It’s] nothing new from that government – setting us up for failure, and then they can pretend it’s our fault.”

Julie Abouchar is a lawyer with Willms & Shier. She was counsel at the Walkerton inquiry, which looked into an E. Coli outbreak in Ontario in 2000, and has followed criticisms of the Act. “If you get the reserves working with systems that work, and chief and council will be able to operate them without problems, that’s fair,” she says. “But it’s not fair to transfer liability to those First Nations for broken systems.” The government has attempted top-down solutions, she suggests, which treat clean water – a treaty right enshrined in the Charter – as an expense to minimize. That’s why the issue has reached its boiling point.


Lloyd Jerry Alexis leads the way down curling gravel roads that slither through the lakeside forest. Though the whole reserve is, technically, under a boil-water advisory, the only well with unsafe water is out of the town’s centre, and serves a row of just a few homes on the edge of the lake. Lloyd, an operator at the water-treatment facility, nods to a small pump sticking out of the ground in the bushes; nailed to a post is a small signboard with a warning.

Lloyd Jerry Alexis. Photograph Ryan Girard

Lloyd Jerry Alexis. Photograph Ryan Girard

Lloyd says the treatment facility itself hasn’t had an advisory since the ’80s. The main issue on the Alexis reserve is that the infrastructure is old and the water lines only extend so far. Once a week, a truck comes by to collect water from the facility, which it delivers to homes beyond the lines’ reach. Lloyd says they could use more hands. But there’s a security he feels in doing it himself. “I like knowing I have clean drinking water,” he says.

Alexis invited me here to see progress, and the recently upgraded facility is one such success. He commends the operators like LLoyd. Laboucan is optimistic, too. Soon, he says, Little Buffalo will get 130 new homes with water systems connected to the facilities. “The young people want change,” he says. “They want to have housing as good as any Albertan or Canadian.”

Why the optimism? It’s partly for the new prime minister, who called for a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship” between the government and First Nations and pledged to eliminate drinking water advisories in five years. But mostly it springs from the indigenous communities. “It was only in 1960 that we were allowed to hire lawyers,” says Alexis. “We now have doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants and people in business, and that community is growing, and everything has improved.”

Alberta is actually in a privileged position to lead. Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor at the University of Alberta, was part of a drinking-water safety plan unique to North America – a risk-assessment process that monitors source water rather than simply responding to contamination. “We want to get to these boil-water advisories that are always on,” he says. But the Drinking Water Safety Plan is implemented by Alberta Environment and Parks, which doesn’t have regulatory authority on reserves; the water
systems that would gain the most from this regulation may not see any of its benefits. The Alberta NDP’s election platform pledged to work with the federal government to guarantee clean drinking water. Ensuring that reserves gain from world-class safety regulations would honour that promise.

“We all want to accomplish the same thing,” Alexis says. “We want our kids to grow up in a good environment, for our grandchildren to enjoy what we enjoy and to know they’re going to have a future.” This is a critical moment, one that every chief I spoke to hoped to capitalize on. The politicians who criticized the Harper regime on this issue are now holding office, and have promised to honour the United Nations Declation on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “Right now, organizations are working with First Nation communities because of all the court cases in Alberta, and in the country,” Alexis says. “Fifty years ago, that didn’t happen.”

Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.