Dozens of indigenous communities in Canada still lack clean water: 'People are going thirsty'

TikToker Brennen McGuire shares videos of brown water coming out of the sinks on Mohawk Territory in Ontario, Canada.
TikToker Brennen McGuire shares videos of brown water coming out of the sinks on Mohawk Territory in Ontario, Canada. © @slapppps

Indigenous First Nations communities in Canada have been grappling with the issue of poor, dangerous water quality for decades, impacting tens of thousands of people. Despite government promises to improve water treatment plants, dozens of native reserves across Canada still lack clean drinking water. Our Observer, who lives on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario, has turned to TikTok to raise awareness by posting videos of the brown, dirty water coming out of the taps.

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When Brennen McGuire, who uses the username @slapppps on TikTok, turns on the sink at their home on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, the water that comes out is brown and murky. This is the case for nearly 90 homes on the reservation which are not yet connected to a new water treatment system. 

‘I remember running a shower and just black water coming out of the showerhead’

McGuire’s advocacy journey began after a video he took in January 2021 showing black water coming out of their laundry room sink received a lot of attention on TikTok. 

My primary goal is just to raise awareness of the water crisis that plagues indigenous communities, and I try to do it through an entertaining outlet. I’m indigenous, but I was raised in a very colonised household, so I never really knew about all of these issues, because they’re not taught in school. I’ve been an advocate my entire life, so I decided that people need to know about this. 

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“This is just a sample of the water I took from my tap the other day,” McGuire says, holding a glass of murky black water. “Yum yum, drink up.”

I moved into the property that I live on now about a year and a half or two years ago. I remember telling my roommate ‘The water doesn’t smell too good, it doesn’t look great either’. I remember running a shower and just black water coming out of the showerhead. She told me that the reserve had been on a long-term boil advisory since 2008.

The Canadian government issues “drinking water advisories” to communities whose water is not safe for consumption. The alerts are split into three categories, warning residents either to boil water before consumption, not to consume it, or not to use it at all. Advisories are considered “long-term” when they’ve been in place for over a year. 

Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve isn’t the only indigenous reserve lacking clean water. There are currently 36 long-term water advisories in place affecting 29 indigenous communities across Canada as of January 25, 2022. The water in these communities may be contaminated with uranium, E. coli, toxic heavy metals or parasites and bacteria.

The contaminated water can have severe impacts on residents’ health, causing skin diseases or gastrointestinal issues. 

Poor water quality in First Nations communities can be traced back centuries when French or British settlers pushed indigenous communities into areas with inadequate water supply. The problem has persisted due to poor infrastructure and lack of funding and water regulation on native reserves.

The federal government in Canada holds the responsibility for fixing these problems, due to colonial-era laws that prohibit indigenous communities from managing their own water systems. The Canadian government has been working to make repairs, managing to lift 127 long-term drinking water advisories since November 2015, when current prime minister Justin Trudeau took office.

While campaigning for his position in 2015, Trudeau promised to end the problem of unsafe drinking water in First Nations communities within five years. Although progress has been made, dozens of native reserves still lack reliable access to clean water – and for some of them, the problem has been around for decades. The 374 residents of the Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario have lived without safe drinking water since 1995. The residents of Shoal Lake 40 finally go clean water in September 2021, after spending 24 years under a drinking water advisory.

‘To make sure it’s safe, we add bleach to the water’

McGuire expects to be integrated into a recently funded water distribution system in Mohawk Territory within the next three years. Until then, they managed to adapt without clean water in the taps:

We are privileged in the sense that to wash our hands and shower, we use the water in our taps. To make sure it’s safe, we add bleach to the water. That, unfortunately, has other effects on your skin. And if our water was undrinkable before, it’s definitely undrinkable now. But to make sure we can shower, wash our dishes, and do all the things that normal people can do, we have to put bleach in our filtration system. 

We are also very privileged to have affordable water [for drinking] that we can go and buy. We have multiple stations of drinking water facilities where we can fill up jugs to put on a water cooler. 

‘It’s the sense of the government not caring about our people’

But not all indigenous communities are close to cities or water treatment facilities. Some native reserves are only accessible via plane, making shipping in water supplies even more difficult.

>> Watch more on The Observers: Members of Canada's indigenous communities share their culture on TikTok

There are reservations in Canada up north that are fly-in reservations. Resources get very expensive for them. A case of water could run anywhere from like 40 to 90 dollars [28 to 63 euros] for them for a pack of 20 bottles of water, which is absurd. We have to make those products affordable for them, but also work towards a solution so that they don’t have to purchase water from a store. 

People are going thirsty without having access to water, and when you’re in that situation, it’s terrifying. I think what’s really been affected is the mental health of so many. It’s the sense of the government not caring about our people. 

Before colonisation, we were distributing our resources equally amongst all of our people. Those were fresh resources and resources that we had aplenty. Then, colonisation happened and all of a sudden our freshwater resources, our forestry, all these things are being polluted and just destroyed. The best thing to do moving forward is to restore all those things, our lakes and forests, and show more care towards Mother Earth.

In December 2021, the government reached a settlement of 8 billion Canadian dollars [5.6 billion euros] after several First Nations communities filed class-action lawsuits seeking damages for decades of poor water quality.

The settlement also called for the government to replace existing water legislation laws to create more equitable management of drinking water systems in indigenous communities.