Water Issues in First Nations Communities


Alexa McAdam

Schulich Leader at University of Manitoba

It’s surprising how much I can do before getting to work in the morning: showering, brushing my teeth, laundry, eating breakfast, drinking tea and washing dishes. If I lived somewhere else, I’d have to boil and cool my tap water before using it to wash and drink. I might first need to haul that water from a community tap or lake, sometimes through sweltering heat or freezing cold. Regularly emptying and cleaning the bucket I might be using as a latrine would take priority over laundry and dishes. After all that, I might not have the energy or time for full-time work – these tasks would be my part-time job.

While “somewhere else” might stir up thoughts of a foreign country, these realities are all too familiar in many First Nations communities, right here in Canada. According to Health Canada’s most recent update, there are 133 drinking water advisories [hf1] across 93 First Nation communities (excluding B.C.) and many homes are still without running water. While efforts have been made to resolve this issue, significant gaps in developing culturally appropriate policies and plans frequently prevent the delivery of desperately needed infrastructure and technology to these communities. For example, in many First Nation traditions, women have a special connection and responsibility to care for water. However, their voices are often excluded from the decision-making process.

The CREATE H2O program for water and sanitation security in First Nations communities is tackling some of those gaps. I have had the privilege of joining them this summer as an undergraduate trainee. Launched in 2013 and funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, CREATE H2O is a science-engineering training program for undergraduate and graduate students operating at the University of Manitoba, Trent University and University College of the North.

This program uniquely offers students training both in their scientific fields and in Indigenous perspectives. In addition to courses in Indigenous law and theory, students have the opportunity to attend ceremonies and gatherings and to work in partnership with First Nations communities. This interdisciplinary training is significant for several reasons. It acknowledges that while technology is an important part of the solution, a purely technical approach is incomplete when dealing with such a complex issue as water quality. Furthermore, community members play key roles in the research process, often guiding and hosting students. Gathering scientists and traditional knowledge-holders around the same table encourages culturally appropriate solutions that are more holistic and complete. For example, one student is working with his community in northern Manitoba to develop source water protection plans by applying traditional knowledge to modern environmental regimes.

Combining two seemingly separate worlds, Indigenous perspectives and science, is not without challenges and tension. However, continuing to invest in inappropriate solutions that delay access to safe water and sanitation services is far more costly. As part of a generation of future scientists, engineers and technologists, it is crucial that we humbly acknowledge the limitations of our understandings and solutions. By seeking the guidance and valuing the knowledge of the very people we hope to assist, we can more appropriately and effectively offer our services.


Alexa McAdam is a CREATE H2O (create-h2o.ca) trainee and attends the University of Manitoba, where she is studying genetics. She is an inaugural recipient of the Schulich Leader Scholarships awarded to students pursing science, technology, engineering or mathematics degrees across Canada and Israel.