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‘Disrespected, violated, contaminated’: Researcher says safe drinking water shouldn’t fall solely on the backs of Indigenous peoples


Water is life. Don’t mess with it.

That’s the message from one Indigenous cultural anthropologist and water researcher: nothing can live without water, yet we’re destroying it at a rapid pace.

In 2015, the federal government campaigned to end all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities by 2020.

Two years after that promised date, water advisories are still present in 94 First Nations communities, with Neskantaga First Nation, an Ojibwe community more than 430 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., surpassing 10,000 days under a boil water advisory this week.

That’s one in every six First Nations communities still experiencing drinking water advisories as of the start of this year.

And while the issue of unsafe water is acutely affecting dozens of Indigenous communities in Canada, the issue affects all Canadians, experts say.

But don’t let the burden of ensuring safe drinking water fall only onto the backs of Indigenous peoples, says Dawn Martin-Hill, a Mohawk woman living at Six Nations of the Grand River, the first Indigenous cultural anthropologist in Canada, and the lead of Ohneganos, an Indigenous water research program.

Martin-Hill wants to keep the conversation about unsafe drinking water in Indigenous communities alive well beyond National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day.

“Water is life,” Martin-Hill said. “Water is like the Creator. And we’re watching it be disrespected, violated, contaminated.”

That could change if Canadians reimagined their relationship to the land, she said. “(Canadians) need to be educated on the issue and understand what Indigenous peoples are dealing with is coming their way.”

Groundwater isn’t an infinite source, and in many places around the world, it’s being extracted faster than it can be replenished naturally by the water cycle. And for Indigenous communities without water treatment plants, they’re often forced to purchase bottled water or trucked water that eats away at those sources, creating a cycle that is expensive to break free from without proper supports and education.

The problem of unsafe drinking water in Indigenous communities is so widespread, people in affected communities were part of a class-action settlement agreement with the federal government. Officials announced approximately $1.5 billion in compensation for communities that were deprived of clean drinking water, as well as $400 million for the creation of the First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund. The settlement, however, won’t bring clean drinking water to the communities still experiencing long-term drinking-water advisories.

Cheekbone Beauty is hoping to raise awareness about the water crisis by asking people: If your lip gloss was made with lead, mercury and E. coli, would you put it on your lips?

The company’s Glossed Over campaign features lip glosses made with contaminated water from First Nations communities. And although the company isn’t actually selling the glosses, it hopes the campaign will spark conversation and bring awareness to ongoing water issues in First Nations communities.

Cheekbone Beauty founder Jenn Harper called it a “stunt campaign” in an interview with the Star, but says its message that water isn’t safe isn’t going to stun or surprise anyone in First Nations communities in Canada.

“It’s time to stop glossing over this issue,” Jenn Harper, the founder of Cheekbone Beauty, said. “You wouldn’t put a contaminated gloss on your lips, so why should anyone put contaminated water to theirs?”

The Indigenous-owned beauty brand is hoping to raise money and awareness to reduce the number of Indigenous communities with unsafe drinking water to zero, in partnership with Sephora Canada and Water First, an organization that addresses water challenges in Indigenous communities through education and training programs.

For Indigenous History Month, Sephora Canada is donating all proceeds from the sale of Cheekbone Beauty products to Water First. Harper called it a “powerful move” from Sephora Canada, but she knows money alone won’t solve the crisis.

“For us, it’s about creating awareness,” Harper told the Star, noting their audience may not know about the issues that exist in First Nations communities until it’s presented to them in a way they can’t avoid, comparing the water crisis to the mainstream awareness of residential schools.

The enlightenment of what happened in those institutions helped so many people “think a little deeper” about the impacts of colonialism, Harper said, who only learned about residential schools — even though she is an Ojibwe woman — when she was 38 years old.

According to a recent report — part of the annual Confederation of Tomorrow survey conducted by the Environics Institute and its partners — 62 per cent of Canadians say they feel very or somewhat familiar with the history of residential schools, compared to 60 per cent who said they felt the same way in early 2021.

While the confirmations of thousands of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools across the country dominated political and public discussions over the past year, awareness has hardly changed, the report notes.

What’s lacking is education and awareness, Harper told the Star, referencing her own education about Indigenous peoples in school was juvenile at best.

“My grandmother survived that system,” Harper said. “But obviously, there are tons of generational trauma that was ultimately passed onto me.” She battled alcoholism for many years, she said, and her brother died by suicide while she was building the Cheekbone Beauty brand.

“These things impact so many First Nations people across North America,” Harper said, and as she grew as a founder and an entrepreneur, she realized sharing that part of her story was important to help people to understand how colonialism still has an impact on communities today.

And like the awareness of the effects of the residential school system, she hopes to bring the water crisis to the forefront of the Canadian consciousness.

Martin-Hill said Indigenous peoples have mostly been “absent from the mainstream; we’ve been invisible. We’ve been marginalized, presented as nothing more than victims.”

And while the work of younger Indigenous peoples — like Harper — is helping to change the narrative through their advocacy work, the challenge to get non-Indigenous peoples to take action remains.

More so, it’s about getting Canadians to acknowledge protecting the water also affects them and their futures, said Martin-Hill.

“There’s just scientifically sound evidence that nobody is going to come out of this if they don’t start waking up and taking action,” she said.

“And that doesn’t mean protesting. It means to get yourself out there and involved and aware that your children’s future should not be just Indigenous people on the front lines.”

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