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First Nations and Inuit Health

Drinking Water and Wastewater

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

Health Canada provides 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 Indigenous and Northern Affairs 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.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) provides funding for water services and infrastructures such as the construction, upgrading, operation and maintenance of water treatment facilities on First Nations 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 Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, and provides advice and technical expertise on federal legislation requirements.

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 Indigenous and Northern Affairs 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.

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 Nation communities?

Through the Drinking Water Safety Program, Health Canada works in partnership with more than 600 First Nation 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 Nation 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 Nation 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 Nation 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 Nation 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 Nation 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 Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). 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 Nation 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 Nation communities?

Prior to 2001, Health Canada was investing $5 million annually in its Drinking Water Safety Program for First Nation 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 First Nations Water Management Strategy developed by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and Health Canada to promote the safety of water supplies in First Nation 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 Nation communities. In this regard, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), 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.

For more information on the regulatory development process please consult: Engagement Process - Regulatory Development for Water and Wastewater in First Nation Communities.

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 Nation 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 put in place to protect public health from drinking water that could be contaminated. In a First Nation community, a drinking water advisory can affect as little as one building and does not always represent a community-wide drinking water problem.

There are three types of drinking water advisories:

  • Boil Water Advisories/Orders (BWAs/BWOs)
  • Do Not Consume Advisories/Orders (DNCAs/DNCOs), also called Do Not Drink Advisories/Orders (DNDAs/DNDOs)
  • Do Not Use Advisories/Orders (DNUAs/DNUOs)

Drinking water advisories are put in place for various reasons. For instance, a community may issue an advisory if there are problems in the overall water system, such as line breaks, equipment failure, or poor filtration/disinfection during water treatment.

Communities may also choose to issue a drinking water advisory as a precautionary measure, such as when there are emergency repairs in the water distribution system or if a community does not have a trained Water System Operator or Community-based Drinking Water Quality Monitor in place.

Types of drinking water advisories

  • Boil Water Advisories/Orders (BWAs/BWOs)
    • BWAs/BWOs are used to advise the public that they should bring their tap water to a rolling boil for at least one minute before drinking and using for other purposes, such as brushing teeth. This is usually recommended when disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites are found in the drinking water system.

For more information, check out Health Canada's Guidance for Issuing and Rescinding Boil Water Advisories.

  • Do Not Consume Advisories/Orders (DNCAs/DNCOs)
    DNCAs/DNCOs are sometimes also called Do Not Drink Advisories/Orders (DNDAs/DNDOs). These advisories are used to inform the public that they should not consume their tap water for drinking; brushing their teeth; cooking; washing fruits and vegetables; making infant formula or other drinks, soups or ice cubes; for bathing infants and toddlers or feeding pets. However, the water can continue to be used for other domestic purposes such as showering and bathing adults, elderly and older children. These advisories are issued when the water system contains a contaminant that cannot be removed from the water by boiling.
  • Do Not Use Advisories/Orders (DNUAs/DNUOs)
    DNUAs/DNUOs are used to advise the public that they should not use their tap water for any reason. These advisories are issued when the water system contains contamination that cannot be removed from the water by boiling, consumption of the water poses a health risk, and exposure to the water when bathing could cause skin, eye or nose irritation.

For more information on drinking water advisories issued in emergency situations, check out Health Canada's Guidance for Issuing and Rescinding Drinking Water Avoidance Advisories in Emergency Situations.

Who is responsible for issuing Drinking Water Advisories in First Nation communities?

Health Canada works in partnership with First Nation communities to identify and prevent environmental public health risks that could impact the health of community residents.

With respect to drinking water quality in First Nation communities, Health Canada has an advisory role. Health Canada recommends to Chief and Council, or their delegates, that they issue or cancel a drinking water advisory and take the necessary corrective actions.

It is the responsibility of the Chiefs and Councils to issue a drinking water advisory in the affected community, to communicate the advisory to residents and to address the drinking water quality problem.

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

How many drinking water advisories are in effect in First Nations communities?

Health Canada and First Nations communities are working together to provide information about drinking water quality in First Nations communities on a monthly basis that is consistent with information available for other communities in Canada.

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

As of October 31, 2016, there were 133 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 90 First Nations communities across Canada, excluding British Columbia.

As part of the British Columbia Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nations 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 drinking water advisories in British Columbia First Nations.

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

Drinking Water Advisories in First Nation communities

For more information, please contact:

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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 Nation communities?

Activities related to wastewater disposal in First Nation 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.