Is Safe Drinking Water a Privilege or a Human Right? (Grades 6-12)

Subject: Social Studies

Topic: Current drinking water situation, government responsibility

Time Frame: 60 minutes

Objectives: The students will be able to evaluate the drinking water situation that is common on Canadian First Nation Communities and reserves. They will discuss the responsibility of the government for ensuring the safety of drinking water. The students will be able to determine if there is an element of racism in the government’s handling of the drinking water situation on reserves.

Methodology: Discussion


  • Handouts of “The Story of Yellow Quill’s Drinking Water”
  • Handouts of “Discussion Questions”

Space Requirements: Classroom and other areas where students can break into small groups.

Background Information: The teacher should read over the Yellow Quill Story and the Discussion Questions.


  1. Ask for a show of hands for how many students do the following at home:
    - Drink water from the tap
    - Filter their tap water for drinking
    - Drink bottled water (either personal sized bottles or larger dispensers)
    Do the students generally trust their drinking water? Do they feel that their community has safe drinking water?
  2. Ask the students to quickly name off a few places that they feel would not have safe drinking water. A list may look like this:
    - River water downstream of sewage or industrial plants
    - Many places in developing countries
    - Areas that have suffered a chemical spill or other catastrophe
  3. Suggest to students that there are many rural areas in Canada where the drinking water is continually unsafe, and that a great deal of these are on reserves. Some reserves have been on boil water advisories for 10 years or more. What are some of the students’ opinions about this?

    After discussing this as a class for a few minutes, ask the students to write down on a piece of paper:
    - What they think about this situation
    - What they think the government, or anyone, should do about it
    Their thoughts will be returned to at the end of class.
  4. Split the class into groups of 4 or 5. Hand out copies of “The Story of Yellow Quill’s Drinking Water”. Allow time for the groups to read over the story. As groups complete the reading, hand out to each group the questions for discussion. Allow time for the groups to work through the discussion questions.
  5. Once the groups have completed their discussion questions, call the class back into one large group and ask for students to volunteer some of their answers to the questions. Discuss as a class:
    - Should the government be responsible for the safety of drinking water across Canada? Why/why not?
    - Why did the government not express interest in helping the people of the Yellow Quill First Nation secure the basic need of clean water?
  6. Finally, have the students return to the piece of paper that they wrote their opinions on before. Has anyone changed their mind after what they have heard and read today? Does anyone wish to share their thoughts? Evaluation: The students should hand in a half-page report on their opinion of the unequal treatment of drinking water in Canada. The groups should hand in their discussion questions for the teacher to check for completion and/or thought. The possibility of a more in depth report would work in this situation. The students could write a report on the water quality in a certain community in Canada (i.e. Walkerton, North Battleford, their hometown, or someplace that is currently under a boil water advisory). It might help if the chosen community has been in the news.

The Story of Yellow Quill’s Drinking Water

In 1996, Environment Canada issued a State of the Environment Report. In this report, it was found that 20-40% of rural wells may be affected by fecal coliform bacteria and nitrate contamination, among other indicators of poor water quality. When a community is found to have unsafe drinking water, that community is usually issued a boil water advisory until the problem has been fixed. The Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan has been on a boil water advisory for nine years, since 1995.

In July 1999, a year before the Walkerton water tragedy, a young Environmental Health Officer found out about the continuous boil water advisory at Yellow Quill. When she tried to find out why it had not yet been lifted, she found that not only did the community get its water from a small creek that only flowed for 1-3 weeks each spring, but that the upstream town of Kelvington would empty its sewage lagoon water into the same creek during the short time that it flowed. The Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) was contacted and began to look into the case.

The SDWF found that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) had hired Sask Water to help native communities with their water and file reports. The Sask Water report for Yellow Quill did not mention the poor water quality at all. The SDWF proceeded to make a more detailed report about all of the problems, including the addition of a carcinogenic chemical to the water at the treatment plant. SDWF made many recommendations to improve the water quality and volunteered to attend meetings between INAC, Yellow Quill, and others but INAC only stalled, year after year.

Even after the tragedies at Walkerton and North Battleford, which were dealt with immediately, no one was trying to fix the water at Yellow Quill. A Health Canada expert that was sent to Yellow Quill after these two outbreaks did try to help, but Health Canada’s politicians in Ottawa stopped his involvement. The people at SDWF began to address the issue along with the members of the Yellow Quill community without federal assistance.

They began with a list of about 60 criteria from the Canadian Water Quality guidelines that our water has to pass in order to be safe. However, Health Canada only follows a few of these guidelines when testing water in native communities, including testing for coliform and E. coli bacteria, chlorine, and nitrates. Such limited testing cannot accurately determine the safety of the water. Why is it that the water in Aboriginal and rural communities is not held to the same standards as in the rest of Canada? Viruses and protozoan parasites are increasingly presenting more concerns in drinking water as they can go undetected in water that is tested for coliform bacteria. This is because viruses are smaller than bacteria and protozoan parasites can withstand higher levels of chlorine. Health Canada has increased coliform testing on reserves from once a month to once a week. Will this help? No, because looking more often for just one parameter doesn't monitor the other 50+ contaminants in the guidelines. In order to help barriers must be in place to ensure that contaminants cannot survive the treatment process.

The protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium infected 400,000 people in Milwaukee when it got into the drinking water in 1993. This outbreak was a huge wake-up call for cities around the world, yet Cryptosporidium is still not on the Canadian Water Quality guidelines. Despite this, the operators of Canada’s major water treatment plants test for guidelines closer to the U.S. ones, which are more stringent than Canada’s. Except for in Aboriginal and rural communities. So why is the federal government spending money on lawyers so that they cannot be blamed for the poor water quality on reserves instead of spending that money on solving the problem? Why is the problem being hidden rather than solved?

Back to the story of Yellow Quill... 

The people at SDWF and Yellow Quill continued to try to solve their problem on their own. An engineering consultant was hired to find new sources of water for the community, looking as far away as 100km. Ultimately a source was found deep under the ground of the reserve. This water was still of poor quality but could be treated to become excellent drinking water. Yellow Quill’s Water Project Team did not want a lot of chemicals to be used, so ultimately a treatment process was developed that had never been used in Canada before.

Different processes have been tested at new well on Yellow Quill since July 2002. A combination of processes that do not use chemicals, yet make the water safe, have been developed, with help from scientists in the U.S. and Europe. The new treatment plant will be the first totally biological water treatment plant in Canada. This has also turned out to be the first time that INAC has supported such a large project.

“Yellow Quill will have gone from having Canada’s poorest drinking water to having one of its best. … By paving the way for new treatment processes it is hoped that other native communities with extremely poor water quality ground water will also soon be able to produce high quality drinking water on reserve.”

Sources: Dr. Hans Peterson, “What does it take to improve First Nations drinking water in Canada? Another Walkerton?”, Aboriginal Times, Vol. 8, Issue 5 July/Aug. 2004. “Yellow Quill’s Drinking Water”,

Questions for Discussion

  1. What do you think would be a reasonable amount of time to be under a boil water advisory?
  2. Knowing what you do about the quality of the drinking water on the Yellow Quill First Nation before the new treatment, would you have been comfortable drinking the water there? why/why not?
  3. Why do you think Health Canada does not test the drinking water on reserves for all of the same guidelines that it does in other Canadian communities?
  4. Why do you think it took so long for the federal government and its branches (INAC, Health Canada) to show any interest in the problem at Yellow Quill? Was their reaction to the problem at Yellow Quill any different than the reactions to Walkerton and North Battleford?
  5. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lays out some basic rights that all Canadians are entitled to. Would you say that the people of Yellow Quill’s rights have been violated? If so, what social construct or attitude may be influencing the differential treatment of Aboriginals in Canada?
  6. Aboriginal Reserves are under federal legislation. Urban centres (cities) are under provincial legislation. Rural communities are responsible for their own community drinking water. Farmers are responsible for their own drinking water. Does this seem fair or safe? What concerns you about this?