Water is Life: End water injustice, keep water public

March 22 is World Water Day – a day to highlight the vital importance of water for human life and ecological health and, as such, the need to protect water resources from pollution, privatization, and commercialization. The United Nations General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as fundamental human rights in 2010. These human rights to safe, reliable water and wastewater are being denied to many Indigenous communities in Canada. Water services and resources are also under growing pressure to privatize.

CUPE’s Water is life campaign raises awareness about the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples, and shows how CUPE members can listen, learn, and act. Colonization continues to have devastating effects on Indigenous communities. Access to water and sanitation are human rights according to international law, yet many Indigenous communities in Canada have water that’s unsafe to drink or wash with. Some communities have lived with unsafe water for decades. Other First Nations don’t have any functioning water system at all.

The Trudeau federal government promised in 2015 to put an end to all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities. In Saskatchewan while 21 water advisories have been lifted, 5 long-term drinking water advisories remain in 4 communities: Little Pine First Nation has had a boil water advisory since 2018; Okanese First Nation has had a boil water advisory since 2020, Peepeekisis Cree Nation which has two long-term boil water advisories since 2013 and 2016; and Star Blanket Cree Nation had a drinking water advisory since 2007.

But that’s just the start of what’s needed to end decades of water injustice and discrimination once and for all. CUPE’s Water is life campaign challenges environmental racism and supports Indigenous peoples as water stewards and protectors.

On World Water Day, we join the call to end water injustice experienced by Indigenous communities, and we remain committed to fight privatization of water and wastewater services.

CUPE has a long history of defending public and community-controlled water and wastewater services. The vast majority of municipal water systems are still publicly owned and operated, many run by CUPE members. We must fight to ensure they stay public.

Stay alert for signs of privatization in your community and look for opportunities to bring water services back in house. Cash-strapped communities should be cautious of privatization threats posed by the federal Liberal government’s Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB). CUPE has produced a list of 10 essential questions for municipalities regarding the CIB and a guide for municipalities considering P3s to ask the right questions. Privatization through public-private partnerships or contracting out puts water services at risk. Communities, not corporations, must control public water and wastewater services.

Links and Resources:

  • Council of Canadians: The Blue Communities Project– encourages municipalities and Indigenous communities to support the idea of a water commons framework, recognizing that water is a shared resource for all, by passing resolutions that: recognize water and sanitation as human rights; ban or phase out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events; and promote publicly financed, owned, and operated water and wastewater services.
  • Council of Canadians: The Blue Planet Project – a global initiative by the Council of Canadians working with partners around the world to achieve water justice based on the principles that water is a human right, a public trust, and part of the global commons.