Health Canada
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First Nations & Inuit Health

Drinking Water and Wastewater

Health Canada, in collaboration with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, assists First Nations in ensuring safe drinking water in their communities, south of 60 degrees parallel.

For more than 50 years, Health Canada has provided environmental public health services to First Nations communities through its Environmental Public Health Program. As part of this program, the department monitors and provides advice on drinking water quality to First Nations communities and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Health Canada also provides wastewater programming such as public health inspections and public education in First Nations communities.

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Drinking Water Quality Monitoring

Who is responsible for the management of drinking water in First Nations communities?

In First Nations communities located south of 60 degrees parallel in Canada, responsibility for safe drinking water on reserves is shared between First Nations communities and the Government of Canada.

Chief and Council are responsible for planning and developing their capital facilities which provide for the basic infrastructure needs of the community, including drinking water. They are also responsible for the day-to-day operation of water and wastewater systems on reserves, including sampling and testing drinking water.

Next link will take you to another Web site Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) provides funding for water services and infrastructures such as the construction, upgrading, operation and maintenance of water treatment facilities on First Nation reserves. The department also provides financial support for the training and certification of operators.

Health Canada helps to ensure that drinking water quality monitoring programs are in place in First Nations communities south of 60 degrees parallel in Canada. Health Canada has also collaborated with the provinces and territories over the past 30 years to establish the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

Environment Canada develops standards, guidelines and/or protocols for wastewater systems on federal and Aboriginal lands as defined under the Next link will take you to another Web site Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, and provides advice and technical expertise on federal legislation requirements. In partnership with Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada under the Next link will take you to another Web site First Nations Water Management Strategy, Environment Canada is developing guidance materials aimed at enhancing the capacity of First Nations to conduct their own source water assessments, undertake monitoring of their source water, develop and implement source water protection plans, and manage their water in a sustainable way.

Who is responsible for safe drinking water in the territories?

The territorial governments are responsible for safe drinking water in all communities in their territories, including First Nations and Inuit communities.

Responsibility for drinking water quality monitoring and 'boil water' advisories reside with the Territorial Governments and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Environmental public health and surveillance programs were transferred when the federal government devolved certain health services to the Government of the Northwest Territories in 1988 and to the Yukon Territorial Government in 1997 and Nunavut in 1999.

After the 1997 Yukon Territorial Government devolution Health Canada continues to provide funding to the Yukon Territorial Government to provide drinking water testing supplies to Yukon First Nations communities.

Upon request, Health Canada, through the Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, provides scientific support and expertise to the territorial governments.

What is Health Canada's role regarding safe drinking water in First Nations communities?

Through the Drinking Water Safety Program, Health Canada works in partnership with more than 600 First Nations communities south of 60 degrees parallel in Canada to monitor drinking water as per the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

Health Canada works together with First Nations communities and provides funding to Chief and Councils for drinking water monitoring through its Community-Based Water Monitor program.

A key benefit of the program is that it enables First Nations communities to sample and test their drinking water for microbiological contamination where it is difficult or impossible to do so on a regular basis and (or) to get the samples to a laboratory in a timely manner.

Health Canada trains Community-Based Drinking Water Quality Monitors to sample and test the drinking water for potential bacteriological contamination as a final check on the overall safety of the drinking water at tap.

If a community does not have a Community-Based Drinking Water Quality Monitor (CBWM), an Environmental Health Officer (EHO), a Certified Public Health Inspector employed by Health Canada or First Nations stakeholders, will sample and test drinking water quality, with the community's permission.

Environmental Health Officers test drinking water quality for chemical, physical, and radiological contaminants and maintain quality assurance and quality control.

EHOs review and interpret drinking water quality tests and disseminate the results to First Nation communities. In all situations, if the drinking water quality is found not to be safe, the EHO will immediately communicate the appropriate recommendation(s) to Chief and Council for action such as, issuing a boil water advisory. In addition, Health Canada reviews plans for new and upgraded water treatment plants from a public health perspective, and assists First Nations in siting the development of their individual sewage septic systems on request.

In First Nations communities where Environmental Public Health Programs are transferred, the First Nations stakeholders are responsible for drinking water quality monitoring.

What is Health Canada's role regarding safe drinking water from individual wells and wells with fewer than five connections in First Nations communities?

Health Canada has developed the Toolkit for Individual Wells for First Nations which contains public awareness materials for First Nations residents served by individual wells or wells with fewer than five connections which include a step-by-step checklist for visually inspecting and maintaining wells, and for avoiding contamination of a well. Health Canada also offers residents, upon-request and free-of-charge, bacteriological testing services of their well water.

These services provide First Nations well users with the opportunity to have their well water sampled and tested for bacteriological parameters twice a year.

What happens if drinking water quality results in First Nations communities do not meet the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality?

If the Environmental Health Officer's review and interpretation of drinking water quality results indicate that drinking water is not safe, the Environmental Health Officer immediately communicates recommendation(s) (such as a "boil water" advisory) to the Chief and Council for their action.

Health Canada assists First Nations with follow-up sampling and investigation to help identify the source of the problem and provides recommendation(s) on how to rectify it to Chief and Council and, in some situations, to federal partners such as AANDC. If an immediate threat to the health and safety of the community is identified, it is the First Nations Chief and Council's responsibility to take necessary action to protect its residents.

Health Canada has developed The Water Advisory Tool Kit For First Nations which contains basic information about the issuing and lifting of water advisories on-reserve. It is intended to help First Nations inform their communities about water usage in the event a problem arises with the community's tap water. In addition, Health Canada has developed the Procedure for Addressing Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations Communities, South of 60° to be used as a guiding document by Chief and Council and other involved stakeholders on how to efficiently address the underlying causes of a Drinking Water Advisory (DWA) after it has been issued.

How much is the Government of Canada investing in safe drinking water programs in First Nations communities?

Prior to 2001, Health Canada was investing $5 million annually in its Drinking Water Safety Program for First Nations communities. From April 2001 to March 2003, Health Canada invested an additional $5 million to protect and enhance drinking water quality on reserves.

In the 2003 Budget, $600 million over five years was announced to support the implementation of the Next link will take you to another Web site First Nations Water Management Strategy developed by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and Health Canada to promote the safety of water supplies in First Nations communities from 2003-2008.

Of the $600 million, $116 million was allocated to Health Canada to:

  • Provide resources to monitor drinking water quality in distribution systems with five or more connections as per the latest edition of the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality;
  • Increase resources allocated to communities with water treatment plants identified as being at high and medium risk;
  • Build First Nations capacity;
  • Increase quality assurance/quality control of drinking water quality test results;
  • Increase accountability for implementation and delivery of the Drinking Water Safety Program;
  • Increase ability to make timely and informed decisions; and
  • Increase ability to detect potential drinking water quality problems.

To enhance the progress and improve access to safe drinking water in First Nations, Budget 2008 and Budget 2010 each included $330.8 million over two years ($54.8 million for Health Canada) for the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan (FNWWAP). Economic Action Plan 2012 extended the 2010 FNWWAP until March 2014.

For Health Canada, resources under the FNWWAP provide for the enhancement of the current drinking water monitoring program and review of water and wastewater project proposals, development of a national wastewater program, procedures to address waterborne illness threats on-reserve, public awareness and educational materials, enhancement of the quality assurance/quality control national monitoring program, and a recruitment and retention strategy for Environmental Health Officers who train Community-Based Drinking Water Quality Monitors.

FNWWAP also includes funding for consultations with First Nations and provincial and territorial governments on the development of a legislative framework for water and wastewater in First Nations communities. In this regard, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), in partnership with Health Canada, will be investigating the feasibility of incorporation by reference to provincial/territorial legislation and regulations of drinking water and wastewater into a federal legislative framework.

How has Health Canada's investment increased First Nations' capacity to sample and test drinking water quality?

Since 2003, Health Canada has increased its own capacity and the capacity of First Nations communities to sample and test drinking water quality at tap. Both the number of Environmental Health Officers dedicated to drinking water quality and the number of community sites with access to a trained Community-Based Water Monitor increased significantly under the previous First Nations Water Management Strategy. In all areas of monitoring - chemical, bacteriological and their analysis - there were measurable improvements.

Health Canada has also developed drinking water communication products, such as:

Related links

Drinking Water Advisories

What is a drinking water advisory?

Drinking water advisories are preventive measures to protect public health from waterborne contaminants that could be, or are known to be, present in drinking water. They include boil water advisories and "do not drink" advisories.

  • Boil water advisories are a way to advise the public that they should boil their tap water for drinking and for other uses, such as brushing teeth.
  • Do not drink advisories are a way to advise the public that they should use an alternative source of drinking water, like bottled water, for drinking and for other uses.

It should be noted that boil water orders, issued under provincial legislation, are common across Canada in small and remote communities.

Who is responsible for issuing drinking water advisories?

Environmental Health Officers recommend to Chief and Council that they issue or cancel a drinking water advisory and if required, recommend the necessary corrective action(s).

It is the responsibility of Chief and Council to actually issue a drinking water advisory in the affected communities. Chief and Council are also responsible for taking the necessary actions to communicate drinking water advisories to residents and other appropriate stakeholders, and to address the drinking water quality problem.

Health Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and other stakeholders are available to provide advice and assistance. A 'do not drink' advisory is issued by a Medical Officer under the authority of a provincial Public Health Act.

Health Canada is working with First Nations leadership to help communities improve their understanding of and responses to drinking water advisories, and to help communities address the underlying problems that lead to drinking water advisories.

What are the main reasons to issue a Boil Water Advisory?

A Boil Water Advisory may be recommended by Health Canada as a result of any of the following reasons:

  1. On evidence of conditions such as:
    • Unacceptable levels of disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites in the water system anywhere from the source to the tap; and
    • Unacceptable levels of turbidity and the presence of bacteria.

    These conditions can occur for many reasons, including:

    • Inadequate filtration and /or disinfection during treatment; and
    • Re-contamination during distribution.
  2. As a precautionary measure issued to residents in a specific area when there is concern that microbiological contamination may exist, for example, local emergency repairs in the distribution system.

How many First Nations communities are under a Drinking Water Advisory?

The number of drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada fluctuates, as water quality is not static.

As part of the British Columbia Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nation Health Governance, on October 1st 2013, Health Canada transferred its role in the design, management, and delivery of First Nations health programming in British Columbia to the new First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). Therefore, Health Canada no longer reports DWAs in BC First Nations.

As of February 28, 2014, there were 92 First Nations communities across Canada under a Drinking Water Advisory.

The reasons why many First Nations communities are on long-term drinking water advisories vary. Many First Nations communities face the same challenges in providing safe drinking water as do other small, remote or isolated communities, such as difficulties in finding and retaining qualified water treatment plant operators. The time required to perform upgrades or replacements to a water facility in a community may take a few years until the upgrade is complete during which time a long-term drinking water advisory should remain in effect.

It should be noted that drinking water advisories are issued by provincial/territorial governments in many non-First Nations communities across Canada, and are most notable in communities that are small, remote and/or isolated.

Resources

The Procedure for Addressing Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations Communities South of 60° is to help Chiefs and Councils deal with the underlying problems that lead to a drinking water advisory. It contains steps to follow to help Chiefs and Councils respond in a timely manner that drinking water advisories are lifted as quickly as possible.

Related links

Wastewater and Sewage Disposal

Wastewater, also known as sewage, can be harmful to humans because it can spread diseases and pollute surface and groundwater sources. The Environmental Public Health Program identifies existing and potential hazards associated with wastewater disposal in order to reduce and prevent public health risks. Program activities focus on community wastewater treatment plants as well as on-site sewage disposal systems.

What wastewater programming does Health Canada deliver in First Nations communities?

Activities related to wastewater disposal in First Nations communities that are provided through the Environmental Public Health Program include:

  1. Environmental Public Health Assessment:
    • Provide site and installation inspections for new and expanded on-site sewage (wastewater) disposal systems.
    • Respond to complaints by providing public health inspections of existing on-site sewage disposal systems when appropriate.
    • Review plans for new and upgraded on-site sewage disposal systems from a public health perspective.
    • Provide advice, guidance and recommendations related to on-site sewage disposal systems, including information on appropriate decommissioning of sites.
    • Inspect wastewater treatment plants if there is a public health concern.
    • Provide advice, guidance and recommendations related to wastewater treatment plants.
    • Review plans for new and upgraded wastewater treatment plants from a public health perspective.
  2. Public Education:
    • Provide public education to home occupants and owners about how to properly maintain an on-site sewage disposal system and reduce risks related to sewage discharge.

Related Links

For more information about how to maintain your on-site sewage disposal system, please see the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Next link will take you to another Web site Septic System Information Sheet.