Three northwestern Ontario First Nations have taken their plight for safe drinking water to an international authority.

Representatives from Grassy Narrows, Shoal Lake 40, and Neskantaga First Nation took to Geneva, Switzerland on Monday to present their cases to the United Nations committee on economic, social and cultural rights (CESCR), which is currently reviewing Canada’s record on human rights.

None of the First Nations that met with CESCR have access to safe drinking water and their cases argue that Canada’s reluctance to act on indigenous water issues is a violation of several human rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the rights to health, food and a decent standard of living.

Grassy Narrows First Nation wants Canada to take responsibility for a mercury contamination dating back to the 1960s. The contamination is the effect of a pulp mill in northern Ontario dumping waste into the local watershed.

A study commissioned by the Ontario government and Grassy Narrows First Nations revealed high levels of mercury in rivers and lakes where members of the community catch fish. Many children are also being born with mercury poisoning.

“Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau says that ‘Canada is back’ as a leader on the world stage,” Grassy Narrows Deputy Chief Randy Fobister told CBC News.

“But how can Canada lead while mercury poison sits in our river and while our families drink unsafe water for 20 years? It is time for Canada to walk the talk and act now to clean our river and provide safe tap water for our people.”

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According to a case presented by Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (located near the Ontario-Manitoba border), the community has been under a boil-water advisory for almost 20 years, while the neighbouring city of Winnipeg has had clean drinking water.

The longest-standing boil-water period in Canada goes to Neskantaga First Nation. The community has been without safe drinking water since 1995.

However, the federal government gave Neskantaga a written commitment to build a new water treatment plant. The commitment also included funds to repair the existing water treatment plant.

All three communities are among five First Nations studied by Human Rights Watch, which found Canada in violation of treaty rights on water and sanitation conditions.

By Tristan Simpson, WC staff

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