Last September, the people of the Potlotek First Nation, located in Canada’s Nova Scotia, began to protest the quality of their water. The community’s water supply has been an issue for over a decade when reports of black, thick, foul-smelling tap water first became commonplace. Over that entire period of time, the Potlotek First Nation community was told that the water — despite its unpleasant odor, texture and coloring — was safe to drink and use.
While the quality of the community’s water has remained unchanged, the Canadian government’s position regarding the water’s safety underwent a drastic reversal earlier this month, when Health Canada, Canada’s public health department, advised the Potlotek to not drink their water, bathe in it, or use it for any reason, including cooking or doing laundry. Interestingly, Health Canada, despite the warning to refrain from using the water for any purpose, declined to state if there was any health risk involved in exposure to the water, which has continued to be used by many residents in the years since the issue first surfaced.
One of the residents who had been using the water until the late-in-the-game advisory was Potlotek resident Bernadette Marshall. “I was drinking water from the tap until last night,” she told CBC on September 12, a day after the advisory was first made publicly available. “I was told it was safe to drink. I personally am very, very angry. I’m angry, like, what are they trying to do to us?”
Since the problems with the water quality in the First Nation became visibly apparent, health problems have also become rampant in the community of nearly 600. Children, as well as adults, have been reported to have developed skin lesions, skin discoloration, and digestive problems.
Residents have blamed the community’s aging infrastructure, which forces Potlotek to get its drinking water from a nearby lake whose underground aquifers leach extremely high levels of magnesium and iron into the water. Health Canada, in contrast, has attributed the discolored water and foul smell to “seasonal factors.” According to CBC, repairs of the existing system are estimated to cost $841,000 Canadian dollars ($683,300 USD).
— Canada First Nations (@FirstNationsRR) September 13, 2017
Health Canada says it will continue to monitor the water quality and will continue, along with the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), to look for ways to remedy the problem. Last year, INAC agreed to install a new water system in Potlotek after the community rallied to protest its water quality. Yet, nearly a year later, design work on the promised treatment plant has yet to be concluded. Local chiefs, frustrated by federal inaction, have hired European water quality experts to independently assess the situation.
While the Potlotek community has been forced to face severe water quality issues for years, the nearby community of St. Peter’s – just a seven-minute drive from Potlotek – consistently has access to clean water and has somehow avoided the problems that have plagued their indigenous neighbors. Since the advisory was announced by Health Canada, Potlotek residents have been directed to use the showers at the St. Peter’s marina until the ban is lifted.
Water crisis: "Canada is supposed to be the richest country in the world…First Nations people are still living in a third world society.”
— Heather Gies (@HeatherGies) September 11, 2017
The Potlotek’s struggle to secure clean water for its residents is symptomatic of a water crisis facing many First Nations communities throughout Canada. Beyond this, however, the issue is part of the larger problem involving the dysfunctional relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government. The Canadian government has historically mistreated its indigenous population and carried out a policy of land and resource grabs, offering only empty promises of redress to First Nations communities. Many First Nations water supplies have been contaminated as a result of this larger, unwritten policy.
Government inaction on major issues facing indigenous communities is common in Canada. Another recent example involves the Canadian government’s failure to address the drastic increase in kidnappings and murders targeting First Nations women. Though some expected a reversal of these policies following the announcement of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s much-touted “era of reconciliation” with First Nations, his initiatives have proven to be a farce — nothing more than an apparent attempt to mask the same corporatist and exploitative policies practiced by his predecessors.
Top photo | Potlotek First Nation resident Patricia Paul displays a sample of water she says came from her taps at home as she poses for a photo in front of bottles of water being supplied on demand to Potlotek residents in St. Peters, N.S., on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. (Photo: Steve Wadden/The Candaian Press)
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