Transitional justice frameworks only address discrete portions of the historical injustices that indigenous peoples have suffered at the hands of their colonial state.  For example, in Canada, the government has attempted to apologize to the First Nations and has in some cases paid reparations in order to alleviate some of the prevailing racism and injustices committed and to limit the scope of the government’s obligations.  Reparations have also been used to “shut down other indigenous demands.”  

The former government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an explicit apology, formed a truth and reconciliation commission and introduced a controversial human rights bill (C-21) as an alternative to the Kelowna Accord—a five billion dollar First Nations development package that was canceled when the Prime Minister’s Conservative Party entered office in 2006.  However, concomitantly, that government took a neoliberal approach to economic development on the First Nation reserves.  It focused on resource exploitation and small business development.





Nevertheless, other aspects of First Nation life have not been addressed.  For instance, in 2011 the Government of Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, issued its National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems – National Roll-Up Report.[1]  Similarly, in 2012 the NGO Council of Canadians’ issued a report as part of its Blue Planet Project.  The latter prior report noted that in the two-year span between 2009 and 2011, Canada’s Federal government – as opposed to its provincial ones – undertook an analysis of the First Nations communities’ water and wastewater systems across Canada.

That assessment encompassed 571 First Nations communities, which represent 97% of First Nations communities in the country.[2]    The Council’s report revealed that over a third of these communities’ systems were considered high risk for poor health, i.e., in 171 communities the water quality was deficient and therefore detrimental to these citizens’ health and safety.[3]    Alternatively, some water systems were so run down that they would likely lead to substantial harm to health for members of the communities.  Indeed, 143 communities or 25% of the First Nations population across the country were found to be served by high risk water systems.[4]    Indeed, a total of 312 systems were unable to meet Canadian health standards for drinking water.[5]

Furthermore, “[a]ccording to Health Canada, as of April 31, 2012, 119 First Nations communities across Canada are under drinking water advisories Some of these advisories have been in place for over a decade.8 Incidence of waterborne diseases in First Nations communities is 26 times higher than in the general Canadian population . . .”[6]  Indeed, three First Nation tribal communities, the Ontario based Attawapiskat First Nation and the Pikangikum First Nation, as well as, the Northern Manitoba based Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak have been a particular of focus of the Council of Canadians.  The Council notes one example: in 2011 a great deal of media attention was focused upon the Attawapiskat.  Living conditions were found to be so significantly decayed that the Canadian Red Cross was forced to provide the community humanitarian aid. [7]

The situation for the entire First Nation community is much worse.  A recent report observed that

As of 2010, 49 First Nations communities have high-risk drinking water systems and more than 100 First Nations face ongoing boil water advisories (out of roughly 600 First Nations in Canada) . . . Many of these deplorable situations have been dragging on for years and in some cases decades . . . The federal government estimates that there are approximately 5,000 homes in First Nations communities (representing an estimated 20,000+ residents) that lack basic water and sewage services . . . Compared to other Canadians, First Nations’ homes are 90 times more likely to be without running water      . . . .[8]

However, there is some in a collaboration between two GOC agencies, the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department and Health Canada.  The latter assists portions of the First Nations community in assuring safe drinking water in their communities.  Health Canada also provides environmental public health services to First Nations communities via its Environmental Public Health Program.  As part of this program, Health Canada screens potable water quality and offers advice on potable water quality to First Nations communities and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Health Canada also provides wastewater programming such as public health inspections and public education in First Nations communities.

The Harper government was also adamant that its commitment to human rights regime justifies its refusal to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a key demand of many indigenous leaders.  That instrument was authored as a transitional justice document.  Indeed, from the perspective of the First Nations and other indigenous peoples, transitional justice measures should be designed to open up the political process and to extend the government’s responsibility to those other than the people who were warehoused in residential school and survived them.  Moreover, Canada’s Indigenous First Nation leaders have demanded that the legacy of the residential schools harmed their entire culture and consequently extends beyond individual survivors to include the collective aboriginal society.  They seek a “community healing,” with outreach programs intended to draw whole communities, and not only survivors, into a common dialogue.  This is one way that Indigenous leaders seek to extend the concept of transitional justice for the entire First Nation community.

[1]           See Neegan Burnside, National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems National Roll-Up Report -Final, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Apr. 2011),

[2]           Ibid. at 3.

[3]           Ibid.

[4]           Ibid.

[5]           Ibid.

[6]           Ibid.

[7]           Meera Karunananthan & Johanna Willows, Canada’s Violations of the Human Right to Water Council of Canadians’ Blue Planet Project 4 (Oct. 2012), available at HRBodies/UPR/Documents/Session16/CA/CC_UPR_CAN_S16_2013_CouncilofCanadiansBluePlanetProject_E.pdf.

[8]           David R. Boyd, No Taps, No Toilets: First Nations and the Constitutional Right to Water in Canada—Executive Summary (undated), -right-to-water-in-canada.pdf.  (Citing Government of Canada. 2004. Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: 4th Periodic report to the UN under articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant, E/C.12/4/Add.15.)

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