“I Wanted to Be Beautiful—Or, at Least, Clean”: What It’s Like to Grow Up Without Running Water

When Alicia Elliott was a teen on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, she and her family didn’t have access to clean, safe water. Eighteen years later, little has changed

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Illustration of a showerhead with dirty water coming out of it
(Illustration: Joel Louzado)

In September of 2001, I’d been living in Canada for exactly one day when I realized my aunt’s house on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve didn’t actually have clean running water. I could wash my hands and flush the toilet when we came down for the pow wow, but I couldn’t place a glass under the running faucet, bring it to my lips and drink. The water my aunt used to wash her dishes and body was pumped from the nearby creek, which was already so polluted us kids were warned not to get any in our mouths when we swam in its ever-browning current.

My father moved our family of seven—at 13, I was the oldest, while my youngest sibling was two—into a two-bedroom trailer down the driveway from my aunt’s house not long after. Though we were still next to the creek, we had no running water whatsoever. The problem wasn’t one of the many boil water advisories in Canada, though Six Nations had numerous short-term boil water advisories throughout the five years I lived there. The biggest problem was a lack of infrastructure to get clean water to all the homes on our rez. And so, my dad bought a cooler and four or five jugs that we’d fill at the public tap four kilometres away from our trailer. If we needed to wash our dishes or our bodies we’d have to heat up a pot full of water on the stove. Whenever the community was under a water advisory, we’d have to boil the water first to kill any microbiological contaminants that might cause stomach cramps, fever, diarrhea, rashes and other skin conditions. Then we’d patiently wait for it to reach room temperature before dipping a plastic cup in.

This was immensely different from our lives before we lived on the rez. Though our family had always been poor, bouncing from rental home to rental home across the United States before eventually settling on Six Nations, we’d also lived in cities where running water was a given. We didn’t have to sneak into campgrounds to shower back then, hoping the park attendant wouldn’t catch us and force us to pay for using the facilities. We didn’t have to rely on a porta potty nestled alongside our trailer to go to the bathroom, which the company we rented it from would only empty and clean when we had money for them to service it.

My high school in Brantford, Ont. had clean running water flowing from every tap. Brantford was so close to the rez it got its water from the same source: the Grand River—the same one every person has to drive over as soon as they turn onto Six Nations. Brantford seemingly never had problems with their water treatment plant, though.

“This is temporary,” my dad told us back then. “I’ll get the water and electricity hooked up in here soon.”

“Soon” never came, but hormones did. My hair would get shiny with grease within 24 hours of showering, so I would throw my hair in a ponytail to hide it. My skin frequently broke out, as it was difficult to wash my face properly. I told myself I was too feminist to care about my appearance, disappearing into baggy sweaters and jeans that I could re-wear multiple times before we could get to the laundromat. But I wanted to care. I wanted to be beautiful, or at least clean. I wanted to have friends over without having to give them a tutorial on how to go to the bathroom and wash their hands at my house.

Eventually I got frustrated with my father, screaming and swearing and relentlessly reminding him how many years it had been since he promised we’d have running water and electricity. What kind of father was he? Did he think we deserved this? Usually he didn’t say anything in response, but on a few occasions he did: “There are lots of places in the world they don’t have running water. Why are you complaining?”

I knew he didn’t really believe that, but at the same time, I couldn’t understand why my father—who I’d seen lift refrigerators by himself, who’d won sales awards at every place he’d worked—couldn’t solve this seemingly easy problem. It couldn’t be that hard; everywhere else had water. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this fact carried serious implications about whose health was actually valued in Canada. I distrusted my own experiences of what I know now are systemic racism and poverty, instead firmly investing in the American Dream: one could overcome anything, I thought, if one only tried hard enough. Dad just needed to try harder. We all did.

***

In May of 2000, gross negligence led to an E. coli contamination in the water supply of a rural southwestern Ontario town called Walkerton, killing seven and causing 2,300 people—roughly half the town’s populaton—to fall ill over the course of roughly two weeks. A series of provincial budgetary cutbacks get rid of checks put in place to catch contamination, though it certainly was preventable. On top of that, the public utilities commission in charge of Walkerton under-chlorinated the drinking water—which meant bacteria, viruses and protozoans that should have been killed by proper chlorination were not. The manager of the commission knowingly tried to conceal the extent of their negligence, and lied to the public about the safety of the water. Canada was collectively outraged that something so devastating could happen here. Ontario apologized by offering compensation to those affected less than a year after the incident: a minimum of $2,000, with no cap on the amount people could receive if they experienced health concerns later on. Walkerton victims have reportedly since received more than $72 million in compensation. The province also commissioned an inquiry into how contamination in Walkerton started, and, more generally, the state of water in Ontario.

I’d been living in Canada for seven months when the Walkerton Commission released the second part of its report. I didn’t read it at the time, but it totaled 16 chapters and 547 pages. Chapter 15, titled “First Nations,” is only 12 pages long. Its first line reads: “The water provided to many Métis and non-status Indian communities and to First Nations reserves is some of the poorest quality water in the province.” Back in 2002, when I was dealing with the reality of this first-hand, I didn’t remember any of the countless news reports on the Walkerton Inquiry mentioning this chapter.

Now that I’ve read the report as an adult, though, I can’t help but notice patterns emerge. Those who wrote it knew enough to condemn the conditions of the water in Indigenous communities, even noting that some of the same problems that led to the Walkerton crisis were prevalent on reserves. However, the authors of the report didn’t ask what, to me, has always been the obvious question: How is it that a mostly white rural Ontario community has a one-time water crisis and their problems are solved and financed, affected people are compensated, new legislation is passed and an inquiry is published within two years, but Indigenous communities have been expected to live with worse conditions indefinitely? Why has there been no inquiry into the mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations—one of the Canada’s worst environmental disasters? Why did two weeks of pain merit a reported $72 million in compensation for folks from Walkerton, but over 15 years of pain and permanent neurological damage only merit $16.67 million for Indigenous folks in 1986. Why were Grassy Narrows claimants’ monthly disability payments frozen in 1985, and not adjusted for inflation until September 2018?

Ninety percent of their people have shown signs of mercury poisoning, creating long-term health problems that could have been curbed if the government took action when they first found out about the mercury in the 1970s. If so many residents show signs of mercury poisoning, why did only nine out of 26 children in 2001 qualify for mercury disability benefits? Why do our communities only ever receive faux outrage that quickly fizzles out, and never the burning passion that hounds inept politicians until they make real change? Why can a Grassy Narrows protester be the punchline of a joke made by our current prime minister Justin Trudeau, the same man who claimed no relationship is as important to his government as the one with Indigenous peoples?

It seems that every report, and every politician, makes the same excuse for Indigenous people being forced to live without the necessities that non-Indigenous people take for granted: funding. While non-Indigenous communities have options to receive funding or loans federally, provincially and municipally to build infrastructure, the Constitution Act, 1867 deemed that “Indians, and land reserved for Indians” fell under the sole jurisdiction of the federal government. This means that the current Department of Indigenous Services Canada is primarily responsible for providing clean running water to reserves. Funding shouldn’t be a problem, since technically Canada took Indigenous peoples’ resource-rich lands from them in exchange for the small reserves they now reside on, from which Canada has been profiting substantially for hundreds of years. That is why Canada felt a moral obligation to fund “Indians, and land reserved for Indians” in the first place. That is why Canada originally set up trustees to handle the money First Nations communities received for rent, leases, lumber sales, land sales, etc. in the decades after Canada forbid them from handling that money themselves.

And yet it seems funding is always a problem when it comes to First Nations communities. And even when money can be found to fund the building of water purification treatment plants on reserves, there is no guarantee of the sustainable, stable funding required to actually run these plants.

Interestingly, while provinces are quick to mention that they are not constitutionally responsible for funding First Nations communities, they are quick to note that provincial laws do generally apply to reserves, as long as they don’t interfere with the Indian Act and other federal powers. This means that Ontario is always essentially making laws for Ontario reserves, even if they refuse to fund them the way they can and do fund municipalities. As if that weren’t enough to consider, there is also section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which affirms and enshrines Indigenous treaty rights and prevents either Ontario or Canada from breaking treaties. While this is good for protecting treaties, it also means the provincial water quality regulations which ensure non-Indigenous people have clean water cannot be applied to reserves. Though this has been a problem since Confederation, and was mentioned in the Walkerton Inquiry over 15 years ago—as well as in every Indigenous-related inquiry since—the problems of jurisdiction and funding that have prevented First Nations people from living the same quality of life as non-Indigenous Canadians have never been definitively dealt with.

Justin Trudeau has vowed to end the 63 long-term boil water advisories that currently remain on Indigenous communities by 2021. This number never included the 33 communities on short-term boil water advisories as of December. It also doesn’t include communities like Six Nations, which is not under a boil water advisory but still has water delivery issues. Six Nations, which currently has an on-reserve population of 12,848, doesn’t have the funding to pay for the plumbing that would allow our water treatment plant to reach the remaining 90 percent of households it doesn’t currently serve, nor does it have funding to properly run and operate the plant, which was built in 2013. Yet, because Six Nations isn’t under a boil water advisory, I suppose it’s considered a success. Times like this I can’t help but feel jealous that a city like Walkerton was offered so much support when its water was contaminated, while my community is continually ignored, even in the stats that a supposedly pro-Indigenous Prime Minister spouts.

***

I haven’t lived on Six Nations since I graduated high school in 2005. My sister Missy, however, moved back in 2012. Because housing on the rez is precarious, she’s lived in five different places in the past six years. When she lived close to downtown Ohsweken, which is connected to the new water treatment plant, holiday get-togethers at her place would be remarkably easy. It felt almost alien to be able to turn on the taps and drink from them—I’d never had that experience on the rez before. Most of the time, though, my sister has lived outside of the 10 percent of the rez that the treatment plant serves, meaning she’s had to rely on some combination of water jugs filled at the community tap, water getting trucked into a nearby well at a high cost, and Nestlé bottled water (which is usually the cheapest). The single-use plastic water bottles my family must rely on for clean water seem to outrage many Canadians more than the fact that we don’t have access to safe drinking water in the first place.

The irony, of course, is that Nestlé is selling us our water back to us. The Erin well, which Nestlé pumps from, rests on the Haldimand Tract: land six miles on either side of the Grand River which were granted to Chief Joseph Brant and the rest of the Haudenosaunee under the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784. This tract was compensation for lands our people had lost while supporting the British during the American Revolutionary War. Six Nations leased much of the lands to financially provide for the community, but 90 percent of the leased land has never been paid for or paid to Six Nations, while the remaining 10 percent of leases have long since expired with no compensation or renegotiation. Under the Indian Act, our people were forbidden from hiring a lawyer to make any land claim against Canada. Canada only entered into land claim negotiations with Six Nations again after our women reclaimed a land development in Caledonia, Ont. and our men set up barricades blocking the road, causing a media frenzy. All discussion has since broken down, however, which is convenient for Canada, since they had promised a framework to deal with land claims over $150 million, such as ours, back in 2008. It took ten years—until March 2018—for them to fulfill that promise.

Meanwhile, Nestlé is legally allowed to pump 3.6 million litres of water per year out of the Erin well for the low, low price of $503.71 per million litres extracted—all of which goes to the provincial government. Nestlé’s water bottling permit on my peoples’ territory expired in 2017. Instead of dealing with growing anger that Ontario is selling our water to an American corporation for pennies, former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stalled by putting a moratorium on new water bottling plant permits. She still allowed companies to pump water on expired permits at the same rate as their old permit, however, making new permits effectively unnecessary.

That moratorium came to an end in January 2019. The Ontario government, currently led by Doug Ford, then extended the moratorium for one year after the results of a public survey indicated 96 percent of 7,000 respondents were in favour of an extension. According to Lindsay Davidson, a media relations officer at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, this is so the “province [has] time to complete a thorough review of our water-taking policies, programs and science tools to ensure that vital water resources are adequately protected and sustainably used.” Again, this measure does not stop any water pumping now. All it does is prolong political inaction. Any Indigenous person in Canada is used to that sort of response, though.

When asked how much profit Nestlé makes off of the water pumped from the Erin well—the one closest to Six Nations—its director of corporate affairs told me that they could not release that information. It’s frustrating to think that an American company profits off of my peoples’ outstanding land claims, water insecurity and questionable provincial permits and doesn’t even have to disclose how much money they’re making from it, but that’s our reality for the foreseeable future. Canada has known about this for decades and done nothing. So has Ontario. I have little reason to believe that will change.

But I do believe in my people. In November 2018, 21-year-old Makaśa Looking Horse, who lives on Six Nations and attends McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., organized a Day of Action against Nestlé. There were educational presentations, a two-kilometre run to the Grand River that ended with a water ceremony, and a protest at Nestlé’s Aberfoyle, Ont. plant. She’s also encouraging people to boycott Nestlé, although that’s understandably hard for people who need to rely on the cheapest available option for drinking water. Her action drew local media attention, but, perhaps predictably, none from the mainstream media who would be able to exert more pressure on politicians and Nestlé.

“It’s my duty as a young Mohawk woman to look after the future generations of my people and community,” says Looking Horse. “My ancestors have had to fight [for] my generation to live a good life and I will do the same for the babies of the future, my nieces and nephews.”

When I look at my sister Missy’s daughter, who has the biggest smile and gives the best cuddles, and who has also never had water security in her young life, I know exactly what Looking Horse is talking about. My niece doesn’t deserve water insecurity. No one does.

Related:

PSA: Indigenous Cultures Aren’t Ancient History—They’re Rich, Vibrant and Evolving
What It’s Like to Be an “Urban Indian”
Rihanna’s Lingerie Line Brings Up a Complicated Discussion About Language

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