Okanagan Indian Band suing feds for access to clean water

Canadian government not serious about safe drinking water for First Nations communities, Chief says

The Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) has filed a suit on Thursday, Aug. 15, in Federal Court against the federal government over its failure to ensure the safety of drinking water.

“The federal government has put the lives of our people at risk,” Okanagan Chief Byron Louis said.

The water systems, which were constructed in the 1970s according to standards outlined by Indian Affairs Canada, rely on groundwater wells that supply untreated water to hundreds of residents.

The wastewater from the affected homes goes into septic fields which may be contaminating groundwater.

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All of the drinking water systems were ranked an eight out of 10 by an expert assessment commissioned by the government in 2010. It found fecal coliforms as a significant source of contamination. In 2017, a joint water management study estimated the upgrades would cost around $45 million.

The OKIB said at present, the largest drinking water system is under a “do not consume” order.

OKIB has worked in collaboration with the federal government to find a solution, but after nine years the government has only upgraded one of seven systems in the OKIB territory.

“We have lost faith in a system that I would characterize as negligent,” Chief Byron Louis said. “We are stuck in limbo between federal policy that underfunds our system and provincial infrastructure resources we cannot access.”

“The federal government is simply not serious about safe drinking water for First Nations communities,” he said. “We have to act. We are concerned that it will take a crisis like death or sickness from contamination before the federal government takes any action.”

The suit seeks confirmation that First Nations communities have the same access to safe, clean drinking water as the rest of Canada—compelling the federal government to ensure water infrastructure complies to safety standards.

“This is unacceptable in a developed country,” Chief Louis said. “If you can turn on the tap in Kelowna and not worry the water is safe, it should be the same in our community.”

“It’s a health and equality issue—one that the federal government can’t ignore any longer,” he said.

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The Okanagan Indian Band has filed a law suit against the federal government after years of urging leaders to improve outdated infrastructure and gain access to clean drinking water. (files)

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