In some way or another, all levels of government in Canada and First Nations share responsibility to implement multi-barrier protection of drinking water. The goal is to protect water from source to tap to minimize risk so that people have access to adequate and safe drinking water. The federal government has committed to assist First Nations achieve comparable levels of service standards available to non-First Nation communities. However, several recent reports on the status of drinking water services standards in First Nations indicate that people in these communities often experience greater health risks than those living off reserves. Using the federal drinking water risk evaluation guidelines, the capacities of First Nations and non-First Nations in Ontario to implement multi-barrier protection of their drinking water systems are compared. The Risk Level Evaluation Guidelines for Water and Wastewater Treatment in First Nation Communities rank drinking water systems as low, medium, or high risk based on information about source water, system design, system operation, reporting, and operator expertise. The risk evaluation scores for First Nations drinking water systems were obtained from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. A survey based on the federal Risk Level Evaluation Guidelines was sent to non-First Nation communities throughout Ontario with 54 communities responding. The capacity among First Nations was variable throughout the province, whereas all of the municipalities were in the low risk category, even small and northern non-First Nation community water systems. It is clear that the financial and technological capacity issues should be addressed regardless of the legislative and regulatory regime that is established. The current governance and management structure does not appear to be significantly reducing the gap in service standards despite financial investment. Exploring social or other underlying determinants of risk may provide alternative solutions to the ongoing water crisis in many First Nations.


This research was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We thank the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions.

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