Iqaluit’s latest water crisis is result of tainted promises to Inuit and Indigenous communities

Whether water is a human right is not a question most Canadians have had to confront. Yet for many of Canada’s Inuit and Indigenous communities, water advisories are simply a matter of “when.” Despite numerous federal commitments to end advisories in Indigenous communities, there remains an unacceptable gap in access to safe drinking water between the country’s north and south.

On Wednesday, Iqaluit declared a state of emergency as a result of petroleum hydrocarbon (fossil fuel) contamination, advising residents not to boil, filter, or cook with any treated water supply until further notice. Subsequently, schools and offices were closed, and the already-high price of bottled water further rose to $9 per litre, a cost unattainable to most Iqalummiut.

This current crisis represents the third water emergency Iqaluit has faced in four years, where in 2018 and 2019 the city’s lake and river reservoirs were at historic lows due to a combination of population growth, climate change and aging infrastructure.

These are long-standing issues, such that many Inuit communities face repeated threats to their water supply. In November 2020, Inukjuak, Nunavik lost two of its three sewage trucks, leaving some households without clean water for two weeks due to full septic tanks at risk of overflowing. Frequent disruptions to the water supply also disrupt health-care settings, preventing staff and patients from being able to adhere with even basic hygiene measures.

As a resident physician working in Nunavut, I’ve witnessed first-hand how inadequate infrastructure compromises health. A lack of access to housing and overcrowding has directly contributed to the rate of active tuberculosis being 38 times higher amongst the Inuit than the rest of the country.

Household overcrowding also presents additional barriers to water access due to higher consumption and waste output. Conversely, inadequate water infrastructure limits the number of housing units that can be built. It has become exceedingly clear that we can’t extricate social conditions from medical ones, and that the causes of recurrent Inuit and Indigenous water insecurity are rooted in sociopolitical neglect.

Access to clean water is predicated on adequate funding and maintenance of infrastructure. For the remote north, it’s also a reflection of long-standing political and economic marginalization. As of 2020, 87 per cent and 85 per cent of Nunavut’s water treatment facilities and pump stations respectively were reported to be in “poor” condition, compared to the water infrastructure in southern Canada, which was described as “good” or “very good.” Between 2015 and 2020, nearly 300 boil water advisories had been issued among 30 Inuit communities, the majority of which were due to lack of equipment maintenance, storage or distribution system failures, or adverse environmental conditions.

The federal government has made numerous commitments to address the boil water advisories in First Nations communities. In 2015, then-Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate all long-term boil water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021, yet 58 still remain.

Most recently, an additional $3.5 billion has been committed to eliminate long-term advisories alone with no corresponding time frame, while no specific commitment has been directed toward Inuit communities affected by aging and vulnerable infrastructure.

Building and maintaining the requisite infrastructure for safe, high quality water systems is undeniably costly in the Canadian north. Yet it’s difficult to imagine that the conditions faced by our Inuit and Indigenous communities would be tolerated in any other part of the country.

In the context of Iqaluit’s current water crisis, Mayor Kenny Bell has issued a request to the federal government for the projected $133 million required to upgrade the city’s water infrastructure. As a nation that just celebrated its first Day for Truth and Reconciliation, committing attention and funding to Inuit and Indigenous water security would be a just start.

Vivian Tam is a CCFP(EM), Family Medicine-Emergency Medicine resident. Follow her at @vtamster.

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