Canadians are concerned about First Nations' drinking water problems, once they're made aware of them.
The Canadian Water Attitudes Study, conducted by Ipsos Reid for the Royal Bank and Unilever, found almost half of Canadians were not aware of water-quality issues on First Nations reserves. More Prairie residents had heard of the problems, but even here, the majority said they didn't know much.
The survey was conducted before the Free Press revealed Saturday that thousands of Island Lake residents live without running water, including some who struggle to keep their families healthy with less water than international aid agencies distribute after a natural disaster.
Since those stories were published, readers have been writing to the paper asking how they can help. "Sometimes words just aren't enough, and I guess I was just wondering where you would start to solve something like this?" social work student Erin Roche, 22, asked in an email.
When Ipsos Reid told survey participants that residents of 100 aboriginal reserves must boil their water before it is safe to drink and that some reserves have been under boil-water advisories for years, 74 per cent of Canadians surveyed became concerned.
The online survey of 2,022 adults was conducted Feb. 17 to 23 and the results are considered accurate to within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Twice as many Canadians surveyed said they'd be more motivated to support an organization that helps address water issues on reserves than one that addresses the same issues when crises occur abroad.
"Not one charity ever came up to northern Manitoba to say, 'let's help out,' " said northern Manitoba Grand Chief David Harper.
Kildonan-East Collegiate students have raised money to provide safe water in Tanzania, a Steinbach student has raised money for clean water in Kenya and St. Mary's Academy students want to purchase a drilling machine for Lesotho, where girls haul water over long distances.
Catholic Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie said Manitoba bishops have considered doing more to address water and housing woes in northern Manitoba.
"We tend to leave that to the government and maybe we should be doing a bit more to make people aware."
University of Manitoba psychology Prof. Katherine Starzyk said there's a psychological barrier to reaching out to help First Nations. Canadians are "highly motivated to believe the systems they live in... are just," she said. "One of the ways people can resolve these kinds of Third World conditions is by saying to themselves, 'Maybe these people deserve it.' "
People who don't want to think of Canada as a country where some citizens live in horrible conditions might minimize the harm or avoid paying attention to the issue, she said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Support the Empty Glass for Water campaign started by a university student in northern Ontario. Joanne Robertson wants Canadians to mail empty water glasses to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, asking him to provide more resources to high-risk communities to implement their safe water plans. "This glass is to remind you that a person is on the other end, waiting to turn on their tap, pour a safe glass of water and drink it without fear."
Encourage your church or favourite charity to consider raising money for emergency supplies to help northern communities reduce health risks while they wait for government funding of expensive new water infrastructure. Free soap, towels, rainwater tanks and water containers with spigots would be a godsend in Island Lake communities where people are so poor that soap has been stolen from school washrooms and water buckets from the delivery program for elders. Perhaps porta-potties could be set up for those without decent outhouses.
Note to readers: If you find a charity willing to help improve water and sanitation on First Nations, email email@example.com so we can write a story alerting other readers who want to help.