An intractable social problem

In Canada, we call them First Nations. In the USA, they are called Indians. (In fact, Indian is the historic term here, too; it survives in legal texts such as the Indian Act.)

Many First Nation communities live in desperate circumstances. One all-too-typical story is making news this week.

The Kashechewan First Nation, in Northern Ontario, has been under a boil-water advisory since 2003. The community’s plight became much worse two weeks ago when deadly E. coli bacteria were found in their drinking water.

E. coli often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. In vulnerable people, the infection can cause a complication which can lead to kidney failure. A small number of survivors will still have abnormal kidney function many years later, and a few will require long-term dialysis. Other potentially lifelong complications include high blood pressure, seizures, blindness, paralysis, and the effects of having part of one’s bowel removed.

In short, E. coli in your drinking water is a serious problem. And the Government of Canada (which has jurisdiction over Indians and Indian reserves) has known about the problem for more than two years. It received an alarming report from the Ontario Clean Water Agency in 2003.

This week, the Government of Ontario declared a state of emergency in Kashechewan after seeing graphic photographs of the community’s children. Many of the children are infected with scabies, a nasty parasite, and impetigo, a bacterial skin infection. Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports,

95 other Canadian reserves are also under boil-water advisories. A 2001 report by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs found that 75 per cent of the aboriginal communities in Canada faced “a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water.” In a sobering report last month, the Auditor-General of Canada reported that most water-treatment plant operators on native reserves across Canada don’t “possess the knowledge and skills required to operate their plant safely.”

Around the world, wherever indigenous populations have survived into the modern era, the same issues exist. Socio-economic problems abound. In Canada, as summarized by Canadian Press,

The average rate of aboriginal youths committing suicide has soared to six times higher than the national average for the age group. …

Native communities also have higher incidences of infectious and chronic diseases, earlier mortality and face more barriers to health-care access than the general population. …

The high prices for everyday food items in communities like Kashechewan — where a pack of hot dogs costs more than $11 — makes it difficult for residents to eat healthily … although the price of cigarettes does not differ greatly from the rest of the province.

This is an intractable social problem. The Government of Canada spends billions of dollars per year on First Nations, and yet this intolerable situation persists.

Full disclosure here:  I am an employee of the Government of Canada. Specifically, I work for Health Canada, in the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. I am not trying to exonerate the Government of Canada, nor do I wish to castigate it. I am simply stating a fact:  that if the funding is calculated on a per capita basis, an extraordinary amount of money is invested, to no avail.

The Globe and Mail offers this opinion:

For thousands of years, the James Bay Crees survived by seasonal migration, travelling and living in small groups. Now the Kashechewan residents live in about 200 pre-fab houses in a community of 1,700 with only a tenuous connection to the old ways — some trapping, some crafts, a goose hunt a couple of weeks a year. They survive on money from Ottawa because there are few jobs beyond the ones Ottawa pays for. The Kashechewan unemployment rate is 87 per cent. …

The majority of [Kashechewan residents] are under 24. They need to live closer to employment, with training that will give them a realistic chance of landing that employment — a statement that could be as easily applied to the other remote reserves in this country.

In other words, the Globe and Mail advocates a permanent relocation of the community. Move them south, where the jobs are, and give them the training they need to join non-Aboriginal Canadians in the workforce.

What does this recommendation amount to? The old policy of assimilation:  First Nation people should give up the attempt to maintain a distinct identity and become like the rest of us. Live where non-Aboriginals live, cultivate the same skills that non-Aboriginals rely on, and get yourself the same kind of job.

If that’s the solution, it stinks.

I don’t have anything brilliant to say here. It seems to me that First Nations are being forced to choose either the frying pan or the fire. Refuse to assimilate and continue to live in squalor and misery; or forfeit your Aboriginal identity for a shot at prosperity.

What kind of choice is that?


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mrs.Aginoth
    Nov 02, 2005 @ 13:42:00

    I’m confused. If the Canadian Government/water company is providing water, why is it not potable?

    If the First Nation peoples are using natural water supplies, can they not be protected from pollution (free running streams should not be contaminated unless something is put into them by humans as far as I am aware)

    It doesn’t solve any of the other problems, but everyone in the world should have access to d=safe drinking water, and there shouldn’t be any excuse in 1st world nations.

    I was horrified to discover a similar situation in New Zealand while watching a redcent documentary. They came up with some wierd reason that because the water was provided by a private company, the government had no say in it’s quality. That can’t be right.

    In the UK there are very strict rules on quality of water – even for the people who collect it directly from the stream/loch at the end of their garden, and even more for anyone with a pipe bringing water into a residence. Of course, London water has a body & flavour all of it’s own – but it is safe! we only get a boil water advisment if there has been an accidental contamination, and never for more than a few days. (although we also have no aboriginal peoples)


  2. Bill
    Nov 02, 2005 @ 13:44:00

    I agree this does seem to be an intractable social problem. I like how you have used Kashechewan to highlight the problem of a society in transition. Unfortunately the transition was entirely brought on by European interlopers (Us) or at least our presence, and there does not seem to be a good way to reverse the trend, which is exacerbated, by dwindling food stocks and global climate changes. A good book (albeit an old one and marginally accurate being a novel) on this is Farley Mowat’s People of the Deer, which highlights that this trend has been going on for some time and the outcome for vast numbers of natives is extinction not only culturally but also physically.

    There seems to be no good choice and yes it, like Kashechewan’s water, STINKS.

    Some in defence of the water have claimed it was not as bad as was thought and better management of the water treatment plant could have corrected the problem. That said I think there is ample evidence that this is a defensive strategy. It has also been pointed out that scabies, and impetigo, are transferred by skin to skin (or clothing) contact not by water. However this excuse doesn’t hold water (no pun) because if you refuse to bath in obviously tainted water then parasites and infections will naturally occur. It is hard enough to get children into a tub, but when the water smells I would assume it is even harder.

    For another look at the Kashechewan water problem read this Ottawa citizen article but keep in mind not everything you read in the news is unbiased -


  3. The Misanthrope
    Nov 02, 2005 @ 17:38:00

    You have to treat like marketing a new product. Find someone who people follow/trendsetter, which will encourage others to also break the pattern. If we marketed solutions the way we market products the world might be a better place.


  4. Q
    Nov 02, 2005 @ 19:00:00

    • Mrs. Aginoth:
    I didn’t get into the details in my post, because I decided to focus on the general problem rather than the specific issues in Kashechewan. The Globe and Mail has just published a Q&A column:

    Although a new water-treatment system was designed a decade ago by consultants hired by the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, the intake pipe was situated 135 metres downstream from the spot where the community’s raw sewage flows into the river. … The chlorine level in the water was increased to very high levels to try to combat the sewage problem.

    Like Bill, I have seen one report stating that the skin diseases were not caused by the water quality. On the other hand, Bill’s point about people not bathing is a good one. And the Q&A points out, the high chlorine levels in the water caused irritated and dry skin.

    I completely agree with your statement, everyone in the world should have access to safe drinking water, and there shouldn’t be any excuse in 1st world nations. This situation is a terrible embarrassment to me as a Canadian.

    One key problem, which is mentioned in my post, is that the individuals running the water treatment systems are not properly qualified. Presumably it’s difficult to persuade qualified people to move to an isolated, northern, First Nation community.

    But that’s not much of an excuse; surely the Government of Canada could invest the necessary resources to provide someone in the community with the necessary training. Then again, sometimes these communities are very dysfunctional and I suppose there isn’t always someone who is a suitable candidate for that level of responsibility.

    Back and forth we go, proposing solutions and finding that the “solutions” don’t fix the problem. Which brings me back to the more general point, that the problem is intractable and we can’t seem to correct it.

    Prime Minister Martin had already promised a substantial investment to provide clean water in First Nations communities a year and a half ago. He seems sincere about fixing the problem but, as I’ve already said, it’s a heck of an embarrassment right now.

    • Bill and Misanthrope:
    Thanks for your comments.


  5. Bill
    Nov 03, 2005 @ 14:00:00

    A possible answer came to me the other night.

    Ask the first nations in question what they want. A national survey, or a series of town-hall meetings. Not directed, but very general. No motives, and have First nations members help create it.

    Maybe that is too simple.


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