Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Water, water everywhere, but...

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I took some flack a few years back when I wrote that an 80-year-old woman should not have to stumble through 50 yards of six-foot snow drifts in 50 below weather to freeze in an outhouse every time she has to go to the bathroom in a wealthy country such as Canada. OK, this image may appear undignified, but I thought some clear imagery was needed to bring this point home since, year after year, nothing is being done about the lack of running water in many of the homes in which First Nations families are forced to live.

Recently, the Free Press used five pages to essentially say the same thing. Kudos to Helen Fallding for her well-researched account of the difficulties and dangers of trying to run a household without the ready supply of water that most Canadians take for granted when they take a shower, flush a toilet, bathe their children and do their dishes and laundry.

None of this is new. Every so often, these Third World conditions get some publicity and they build a water treatment centre in one community and they supply some other community with a water delivery truck, while the treatment centre and water truck in another community get too old and wear out. We will never get caught up the way things are.

There just doesn't seem to be the will, and without the will, there is no way.

I think this is because most Canadians don't know why we should be ending these Third World conditions and they don't know how such an expensive undertaking can be paid for.

Too many people get caught up in ethical reasons such as "we have a moral obligation" to do this, or philosophical reasons such as "a society is judged by how it treats the unfortunate within its midst." Others don't want "Canada's image on the world stage to be negatively affected."

Many people simply believe we don't have the money.

Canadians are basically good people and they usually want to do the right thing (although you might not think this after witnessing a throng of Free Press readers agree with a letter to the editor that essentially said Indians should live like farmers did in the 1930s without running water while the rest of us live with all the modern comforts of 2010). And we are immensely proud of Canada's reputation as a great place to live. Canadians are a giving people, too. We lead the world in charitable donations and we spend plenty of money in Third World countries. But all this hasn't created the will or the way to provide running water in all First Nations in Canada.

Perhaps other ways of thinking will provide the ways and means of getting this job done.

First, the best way to get people to agree to anything is to convince them it makes economic sense. And the simple fact is that if we spend the money to provide safe, clean running water to First Nations communities, we will actually save money. On health care. The cost of providing plumbing to one home is way, way less than paying for the additional doctors and nurses and hospitals and medicine a family of five to 10 people will require over their lifetimes because they live in unsanitary conditions. And the return on investment is good because healthy people are much more likely to lead productive lives and make a positive contribution to our economy. So we will actually make lots of money by doing this.

Some people think we can't afford the cost of this kind of infrastructure right now. We just went through that global economic downturn and we hear those horror stories about ordinary, hard-working people going bankrupt and so on.

But we also know that, unlike the United States, Canada was relatively unscathed by that global downturn. More conservative economic policies and the fact Canada is a resource-rich country kept us from going broke individually and collectively.

The reason we still have so many people living in Third World conditions (i.e. First Nations) is not the amount of wealth we have in this country, it is the uneven (and unfair) distribution of this wealth.

It has been estimated that 95 per cent of the riches in Canada are controlled by five per cent of the population. Just how many yachts does one need to water ski behind?

The excess wealth of the billionaires and millionaires is Canada is ridiculous. I am a capitalist, but there is a limit as to how much some individuals can have and others cannot have (these are not the days of kings and serfs, and when a lot of these mega-millionaires got that way by making us wait for an hour on the phone to talk to a call centre employee who is being paid $10 an hour to stonewall our complaints about shoddy products and/or services, well...)

With most of us living in a home with 7.3 rooms (plus rec room), driving 1.8 cars and spending 12.6 days a year on vacation in some exotic location, we can spare the bucks, especially since this is a good investment. Come on! Remember that 80-year-old woman hiking up her skirt to trudge through a six-foot snowdrift in the middle of winter.

And, if you think this country isn't wealthy, you should see all the tower cranes (at least 50) that were putting up expensive condominiums and office towers in Toronto right in the middle of that so-called economic downturn.

But finally, we have to create the infrastructure to provide running water on First Nations because it is a basic human right!

The Supreme Court of Canada itself has ruled that we signed legal treaties, which are governed by spirit and intent. First Nations representatives agreed to move on to smaller areas of land while agreeing to share or cede other lands in exchange for certain things. First Nations should receive royalties from the development of these lands (just five per cent of the annual take from mining, forestry and hydroelectric power would pay for this infrastructure in one year) Bottom line, First Nations are supposed to receive education, health care, housing and the basic amenities of life, including safe, clean, running water.

So, not only is it unfair for First Nations people to live without running water, it is morally and ethically wrong. We can afford to create the infrastructure that's needed to provide running water on First Nations. And while there is no legal statute that says Canadians must provide Indians with clean, running water, the spirit and intent of the treaties is that such basic needs must be met and the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2010 A14

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