(Image Credit: Paul Kagame via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
From the public discussion of water advisories at FN reserves, one might imagine that it is ONE problem to be fixed, by resolving an unchanging number of such advisories. However, the reality is dynamic, and involves a lot of churn.
As many of you know, I stumbled upon the issue of mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows by random chance. Following that issue with the Ontario government, and talking about my efforts in online posts, brought me in contact with a number of great people. In the common parlance of today’s politics, they are ‘of all backgrounds’. These fabulous people, in turn, helped me understand another issue affecting the Indigenous people, viz., water advisories.
I mention all this because until mid-2021, my understanding (using that word very loosely here) of these issues was typical of a first-generation immigrant. ‘Grassy Narrows’, ‘mercury contamination’, ‘water advisory’ / ‘boil water advisory’ were terms akin to comets, appearing far above in the sky periodically (typically but not always around election time), and then disappearing into the distance. As with comets, the trajectory of these discussions was also predictable – and indeed unchanging. Therefore, when Prime Minister Trudeau claimed (somewhat infamously) that his government had inherited 105 water advisories, and managed to fix all 109 of them, his claim caught my eye – after all, I am an accountant by education.
The only way to make sense of his claim was if either the number at the start of Mr. Trudeau’s tenure as PM was wrong, or if that number was correct, then 4 newer water advisories had been born after he took over the reins of government. In the latter case, the obvious question in my mind (as a former auditor, remember) was pretty straighforward: was this number of newer advisories 4, or greater? Since it had become clear to me that ‘water advisories’ was not a phenomenon limited to the days before Mr. Trudeau took office, but rather a misfortune that could strike even under his benevolent rule, how many water advisories had come into being since he took office? Was this still happening? How many of these newer advisories were still awaiting to be fixed?
Jumping into the discussions around water advisories on Twitter brought me in touch with someone who calls himself Jonny Bowhunter (because he actually hunts using bow & arrows). He used to tweet the daily number of water advisories that were in effect: long term, short term plus those in B.C. I learned from Jonny that when a short-term advisory disappears from the list, it is not necessarily because it got fixed; after spending 365 days on the Short-Term list, the advisory automatically moves to the Long-Term list.
I paused to ponder what my life would be like if I had been without safe drinking water for 365 days and counting. I found it difficult to imagine. Jonny helpfully pointed me to the case of Neskantaga Reserve, where the advisory has been in effect for 25 years, with no resolution in sight even now.
Sadly, Jonny decided to leave Twitter – but the important void that he left was filled by another fine Canadian, Chris Inglis (@SawdustInglis on Twitter). Chris follows the same method and frequency of tweeting the number of water advisories that are in effect on a given day. The numbers are sourced from the websites of Indigenous Services Canada (for short-term and long-term) & First Nations Health Authority (for B.C.).
A few days ago, it occurred to me to compile a list of these numbers for the month of May 2023, so the visual presentation of the dynamic situation on the ground (and in the water!) can help other Canadians like me to get a better understanding of the situation. Hopefully, this would also equip them to assess any claims that “(insert number here) water advisories have been fixed”. My bottom line in understanding this issue is that fixing water advisories at First Nations Reserves is a recurring activity, and not a one-time feat to be achieved. Therefore, the real measure of accomplishment in this matter is if the total number of advisories that are outstanding on any given day is trending downwards. Water advisories will keep coming into being, but how quickly they are resolved, and how long it takes for the same Reserve to reappear on the list, depends on the quality of the work that gets done.
Because the real world is dynamic (despite the fact that partisan posturing would have us believe otherwise), the total number of advisories in effect fluctuates every day. As I mentioned earlier, when the number of short-term advisories goes down, you have to check if the number of long-term advisories has gone up. If it has, then it means that nothing was done, and the problem was just moved to a different area of the reporting system. With that understanding in place, let us look at the numbers for May 2023.
As can be seen above, in the month of May 2023, the total number of water advisories at FN Reserves increased by 6, from 80 on May 01 to 86 on May 31. The number of short-term advisories rose by 4, the number for B.C. saw a jump of 3, while long-term advisories went down by 1. According to Chris’s update for June 03, the number for short-term advisories has gone down back to 28, while the other numbers remain unchanged.
Here is the kicker: based on the above data, one can TRUTHFULLY claim that during the month of May 2023, a total of 17 water advisories were fixed. But every time a water advisory came into effect and then got tackled (or another one got resolved), at the end of all that ebb and flow, the total number of active water advisories went up by 6, even though 17 water advisories did get fixed.
So, the next time you are in a discussion about the water advisories at First Nations Reserves and someone makes a claim as to how many of them have been fixed, just ask them how many are in effect as on that day. And if they pull out that irritating graphic that is so popular among Liberal supporters (and that I have seen so many Indigenous people find nauseating), please show them the data table above. Then tell them that the objective should not be to fix more and more water advisories, but rather to ensure that the total number of them on the outstanding list is as close to zero as possible. When we agree on that as an objective (IF we can – and I know that it is a very big if, given the high level of partisanship that prevails today), we will have taken a step – however small – in the direction of true Reconciliation.
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