The condition of water safety and quality on reserve has been a growing concern in Canada. Despite a substantial amount of funding allocated toward improving water infrastructure on reserve, an alarming proportion of communities face boil and drinking water advisories. To understand why this paradox and problem persists, this article will work through the issues and nuances that have created unsafe drinking water on reserve, proposed remedies, and policy implications. To do so, the role of the Government of Canada is reviewed first because reserve land is under federal jurisdiction. Following this, the article will discuss the standpoints of the Assembly of First Nations and other Indigenous groups on the water crisis, and will draw upon focus groups within First Nations that we conducted. To contextualize the water issue on reserve in Canada, a comparison with the United States is then drawn.

One of the main themes of this paper with regard to the issue of safe drinking water on reserve is how the legacy of colonization has limited community capacity. This theme is then discussed in depth by comparing Indigenous to non-Indigenous communities, looking to the social determinants of water quality, and possibilities and limitations of building sustainable development allowing for safe drinking water on reserve. To understand what processes consistently intervene in the way of sustainability of safe water in Indigenous communities, regulatory frameworks are examined, funding mechanisms are reviewed, and Aboriginal governance is discussed along with the direction that policy should take.


The research that supported this paper was funded by a strategic grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council: May 2009 –“The Social Determinants of Safe Water and Community Wellbeing in Aboriginal Communities.”

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