The Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) has filed a suit in Federal Court against the Government of Canada over its failure to ensure the safety of drinking water. According to Okanagan Chief Byron Louis, “the federal government has put the lives of our people at risk.”
The action revolves around drinking water systems constructed since the 1970’s according to standards specified by Indian Affairs Canada. The water systems rely on groundwater wells that supply untreated water to hundreds of homes. The wastewater from those homes goes to individual septic fields, which may be contaminating groundwater.
An expert assessment commissioned by the federal government in 2010 by firm Neegan Burnside produced a startling result. All of the drinking water systems were ranked an eight out of 10 on a scale of potential risk to human health. Fecal coliforms are a significant source of contamination. A joint water management study from 2017 estimated the cost of upgrades at $45 million. At present the largest drinking water system at OKIB is under a do not consume order.
OKIB has worked with Ottawa to find a solution – specifically improvements to the systems to ensure the safety of drinking water. After nine years of determined and good faith efforts on the part of the OKIB, the federal government has made upgrades to only one of seven systems. Okanagan felt no option was left, apart from legal action.
“We have lost faith in a system that I would characterize as negligent,” said Chief Byron Louis. “We are stuck in limbo between federal policy that underfunds our system and provincial infrastructure resources we cannot access. The federal government is simply not serious about safe drinking water for First Nations communities.”
“Our frustration is felt across our community and likely across the country by other First Nations,” Chief Louis added. “We have to act. We are concerned that it will take a crisis like a death or sickness from contamination before the federal government takes any action – other than constant delay. This is unacceptable in a developed country. It’s really an issue of equality – if you can turn on the tap in Kelowna and not worry the water is safe, it should be the same in our community.”
The suit simply asks for confirmation that First Nations have the same access to safe drinking water as other Canadians. That would compel the federal government to ensure water infrastructure that meets safety standards – with a timeline. “It’s a health and equality issue – one that the federal government can’t ignore any longer,” said Chief Louis.