It is almost unimaginable that residents in a populous area of the Lower Mainland could be without a reliable source of safe drinking water.
Yet this is what is happening – and has been happening for a long time – for people who live on the Semiahmoo First Nation reserve.
The current situation, in which the reserve’s water supplier, the City of White Rock, has put forward an 18-month deadline to turning off the water altogether – as a means, according to Mayor Wayne Baldwin, of jump-starting stalled negotiations over a contentious city-owned pump station on reserve land – is yet another reminder that there are still residents in our community who don’t even have the luxury of mains-connected service.
On the eastern end of Beach Avenue, where White Rock’s pipes don’t reach, some residents truck in water for showering and laundry uses, and buy bottled water for drinking and cooking. Even those on the existing water service have had a boil-water advisory for more than a decade.
The SFN situation is far from unique. In June, a report from the international Human Rights Watch called for urgent steps to be taken by provincial and federal authorities to resolve more than 100 boil-water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada.
The band – seeing White Rock’s Aug. 29 notice as an ultimatum – have been exploring the possibility of connecting to Surrey’s water supply. That could be done within a year, Surrey’s utilities manager says, but at a cost of millions.
Lost in all the wrangling, of course, are residents who have been woefully underserved for years. Critics of the band’s leaders – and their high salaries that made headlines more than a year ago – will not be slow to point accusing fingers in that direction. But that’s only one issue in a problem that should also involve – in a just society – SFN’s municipal and regional neighbour and federal authorities, and which should, by rights, have been fixed decades ago.
The author of the Human Rights Watch report makes the point that First Nations don’t have the same legal protections to ensure safe water as Canadians living off-reserve. And while Canada joined the international consensus on the right to water at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, it still has no comprehensive national water law – only a net of varying provincial policies.
In pre-election campaigning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to end First Nations boil-water advisories within five years. That’s five years too long. It’s time for decisive action on this fundamental right – not the prolonging of local squabbles.