‘A human rights issue that has been overlooked’: Winnipeggers mark World Water Day

Water issues continue to disproportionately impact Indigenous communities, according to advocates speaking at a World Water Day event at the Odena Circle Wednesday night.

“World Water Day is really important to reflect on our impact on water and water systems here in Canada, on Turtle Island and globally in the world,” said Sadie Lavoie, one of the speakers.  About 30 people attended the event held at the Forks in Winnipeg to mark the annual UN observance day to raise awareness about the importance of fresh water. It’s estimated that about 2 billion people live without access to fresh water.

Lavoie has been an advocate for water protection and sustainability in Manitoba for years, and previously worked for Wa Ni Ska Tan, which is an Indigenous-led alliance of hydro impacted communities.

“It’s frustrating, it’s sad because we’ve been talking about this for years, if not decades,” Lavoie said about the 32 boil water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada. 

“The government’s really dragging its heels on … addressing these issues that impact a whole generation of young people who have grown up without clean running water … in their own homes. And this is obviously a human rights issue that has been overlooked.”

In recent years, the federal government has lifted 138 long-term and 245 short-term drinking water advisories in First Nations.

In Manitoba, there are three remaining advisories in Shamattawa First Nation, Mathias Colomb Cree Nation (Pukatawagan), and Tataskweyak Cree Nation. 

The World Water Day event at the Forks opened with a drum song, followed by a prayer.
The World Water Day event at the Forks opened with a drum song, followed by a prayer. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

In a statement from Indigenous Services Canada, the federal government said they have committed $20 million to upgrade the water treatment plant in Shamattawa First Nation, which is expected to be completed by April. 

They have also committed $39 million for upgrades to the water treatment plant in Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, which is expected to be done by spring 2025. 

Tataskweyak Cree Nation has had a boil water advisory since 2017, and the government has no timeline of when it will be lifted.

In Dec. 2021, Tataskweyak, along with Curve Lake First Nation, and Neskantaga First Nation filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government for long-term drinking water advisories. 

Protecting Lake Winnipeg

For Daniel Gladu Kanu, director of Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective, World Water Day is a time to reflect on how water issues continue to impact the 11 First Nation communities that live along the shoreline. 

“I really want to be thinking about the people who stand up for water … for their community, and water on the land,” Gladu Kanu told CBC’s Information Radio host Marcy Markusa. 

The Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective continues to advocate to the provincial and federal governments about the need to protect the ecosystem of Lake Winnipeg, Gladu Kanu said.

“There’s folks all around Lake Winnipeg and really all across the landscape that are fighting for water, through various means like setting up camps and advocating with the government and praying,” Gladu Kanu said. 

The organizer of the event, CUPE, unveiled a new poster for World Water Day.
The organizer of the event, CUPE, unveiled a new poster for World Water Day. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

As the spring thaw and flood season approaches, Gladu Kanu is thinking about the risk of the lake developing algae blooms, which block sunlight to underwater plants and threaten the health of fish. 

“Algae blooms are something that are going to be a risk [for] many years, especially when you have floods that can lead to a lot of flushing of phosphorus off the land … that can lead to a lot of algae blooms,” Gladu Kanu said. 

Shawn Kettner holds up a sign at the World Water Day event at the Odena Circle at the Forks.
Shawn Kettner holds up a sign at the World Water Day event at the Odena Circle at the Forks. (Stephanie Cram/CBC )

Lake Winnipeg’s shoreline erosion is another concern.

“It’s been really bad and it’s especially bad in the north basin near Norway House, where the water flows into the Nelson River,” Gladu Kanu said. It makes the water murky, which makes it hard for fish to grow and also affects fisheries.

Gladu Kanu also mentioned Camp Morningstar, located in Seymourville, Man. on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. It was erected three years ago, to highlight the concerns First Nations in the area have with resource development along the shoreline.

“There’s a potential [silica] sand mine that could happen on that land, so they want to be there to protect it,” Gladu Kanu said. “They’ve held a fire there for many years and have continued to do so even through these cold winters.” 

WATCH | Janet Stewart speaks to Daniel Gladu Kanu:

Indigenous people finally represented at meeting about Lake Winnipeg’s health

1 hour ago

Duration 4:59

CBC’s Janet Stewart speaks with Daniel Gladu Kanu of the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective about World Water Day and his group’s historic meeting with the federal-provincial steering committee charged with improving the health of the lake’s watershed.