First Nations and the human right to water

An overview perspective of a lake in northern Ontario

World Water Day is on March 22 and it is a good reminder that while Ontario contains a staggering one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water, many First Nation communities in the province struggle with accessing clean and safe drinking water. Due to outdated and faulty treatment centres, contaminated watersheds from industrial activities and the lack of infrastructure and access, clean running water in homes and community facilities is a right that many First Nations in Ontario live without.

The United Nations adopted the Human Right to Water and Sanitation on July 28, 2010. It recognized that “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights. The right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” - UN General Assembly 64th Session, Resolution 54/292.

A water cistern
One of only four working cisterns in the community. The Youth H2O project would add a new tank to the arena. MCC Photo

Following a visit to Pikangikum First Nation in August 2018, Isaac Shelley, MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program associate witnessed first-hand the difficulty of accessing clean drinking water for the 3,000 community members, and 400 households living in Pikangikum First Nation; one of 32 fly-in communities across Ontario’s remote north.

“Presently only 50 homes in this community have water running into their home that can be used for drinking and sanitation. Families are having to walk up to a kilometre to visit one of four operating cisterns to access safe water,” said Shelley. “While the long-term boil water advisory was lifted in Pikangikum in September 2018, accessing clean water for drinking and sanitation remains a major obstacle for families, elders and youth in the community.” 

A young Indigenous girl smiles for the camera.
Nina is one of the many young people who will benefit from clean, drinkable water at the community arena. MCC photo

MCC has been partnering with Pikangikum First Nation for several years and is honoured to continue working with the community on a new project we are calling Youth H2O. This project, in consultation with the Pikangikum First Nation Chief and Council, will provide the youth of Pikangikum access to clean drinking water at the local arena.

In a community where an estimated 75 per cent of the population is under the age of 25, the arena is an important social hub during the long winter months for both boys and girl's hockey and ringette teams. MCC staff are working with partners to plan, develop, fundraise and implement this project in 2022.

This March 22, we echo the theme of this year’s World Water Day—“leaving no one behind"—and invite you to work with us making clean water accessible in First Nations across Ontario.

In Ontario, MCC has developed a water booklet that tells the stories of four northern First Nations communities and their struggles to access safe water. Read the water booklet here and view this interactive map which shows the water safety status for Ontario First Nations communities and stories of this struggle for a basic human right.