First Nations solutions to First Nations issues

The University of Manitoba has just announced CREATE H2O, a research project supported by the U of M’s Centre for Human Rights Research with contributions from Trent University, University College of the North, the Assembly of First Nations, and industry partners. CREATE H2O is intended to address the longstanding lack of accessible sanitary drinking water within First Nations communities.

The $2.976 million project, led by Dr. Annemieke Farenhorst, will work with First Nations communities in Canada. The participants will make an effort to improve the infrastructure currently resulting in unsanitary and inaccessible drinking water.

The United Nations Water Conference (UN) recognized access to safe drinking water as a right in an Action Plan in 1977. In July 2010, the UN formally reaffirmed this position, noting that states are responsible for providing all citizens access to sanitary drinking water.

In June 2011, 24 researchers at the University of Manitoba gathered at the Water Rights Research Consortium to discuss 3,400 First Nations homes throughout Canada without indoor plumbing. Most of these are in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. Forty per cent of the water systems in these two provinces have deficiencies, resulting in serious health implications for residents.

One-hundred and ten First Nations communities with indoor plumbing do not have potable tap water.

The World Health Organization recommends 50-100 litres of water per day per person. The average person in Winnipeg uses 180 litres of water per day, while some individuals in the Island Lake region work with about 15 litres of water per day.

In 2012, the UN and Amnesty International criticized Canada’s human rights record and treatment of its indigenous peoples. The Canadian government argued that other countries’ human rights records were worse than Canada’s, and therefore the UN should be focusing on those countries. The UN countered that human rights apply equally to everyone.

“The more effective Canada’s system for overseeing and implementing international obligations, and the stronger Canada’s record of compliance, the more forceful and credible Canada’s efforts will be to push other countries to comply with and implement their own obligations. Better human rights implementation in Canada strengthens human rights protection in Canada and beyond,” stated the 2012 Amnesty International Human Rights Agenda report.

Canada will face an intense review from the UN in 2013 as pressure for action mounts.

CREATE H2O is a step in the right direction. The project received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Former Winnipeg Free Press journalist Helen Fallding spoke to the Manitoban about the project. Fallding served as inspiration for the formation of CREATE H20 after writing a series of stories on First Nations communities and speaking with the director of the U of M’s Centre for Human Rights Research, Karen Busby, regarding the focus of the centre’s research areas.

“I think it’s commendable that a government-granting agency is funding a project that could have such practical benefits to the people in this country whose water services are lacking. I think we have a bit of an international reputation for neglecting First Nations communities and we would like to be part of turning that around,” stated Fallding.

First Nations communities and students will play a huge part in the process: suggesting the angle of the research questions, conducting research, and implementing solutions.

“I think it’s helpful for First Nations to know that some of their own community members are going to get in the program to help solve problems in their own communities, and I think it also helps people to know [that] people outside of their communities, [ . . . ] non-Aboriginal scientists are taking an interest in this and saying, ‘this matters to us as Canadians and we want to do something about it,’” said Fallding.

Fallding noted that the UN likely considered all areas of the developing world without clean drinking water and sanitation when they issued the official recognition of water as a basic human right. She did not demean the importance of helping developing countries, but did say that looking into our own backyard and fixing the water issues there is just as important as international issues.

“We need to not forget that in our own country, this is a really, really serious issue. It should not be an issue in a wealthy country. We have to look to our own country and fix this first and fix it fast,” said Fallding.

Fallding stated that this water rights research model had potential from the beginning to be a template for how to build respectful relationships between First Nations, scientists, and engineers in fixing future infrastructure as well as social and economic issues.