Grade Five Thematic Unit Part 3: Contemporary Water issues in Aboriginal Communities

Contemporary Water Issues in Aboriginal Communities

Subject: Social Studies

Topic: Safe Drinking Water in Aboriginal Communities

Time Frame: 60 minutes


  1. Students will be made aware of the dual jurisdiction of provincial and federal governments regarding safe drinking water on First Nations.
  2. Students will be able to read material and discuss that material with classmates regarding safe drinking water in First Nation communities.

Methodology: Direct instruction, small group discussion, and oral presentation.

Materials: Lecture Notes/ Discussion Paper, student reading.

Space Requirements: Classroom

Background Information: The Safe Drinking Water Foundation is a registered charitable organization that is dedicated to ensuring safe drinking water. The SDWF commissioned teachers to write curricula to be put in the school systems with operational grants from various organizations. SWDF feels it is important that people be made aware of the conditions that exist on Canadian First Nations regarding water. More information about SDWF is available at


  1. Ask your students these questions (10 minutes):
    • Why is it important to have safe drinking water?
    • What happens if you do not have safe drinking water?
    • How is safe drinking water ensured within your community?
    • What would you do if you did have safe drinking water?
    • Are there different standards regarding safe drinking water?
  2. After you and your students have talked about the questions written in number one, then and only then read through the student handout and have your students highlight pertinent points. This handout is written from the perspective of SDWF and the author and it will provide valuable insight into the contemporary water issues that are faced by A boriginal people in Canada. Ask your students to write jot notes or you may choose to write pertinent points you wish your students to have on the blackboard or on a transparency for overhead projection. Have students copy the notes in their notebooks. (15 minutes).
  3. On the Canada waterways mural have students label Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta and Yellow Quill (Nut Lake) First Nation in Saskatchewan.
  4. Divide students into small groups and have them take the information from the handout into their small groups and answer one of the five assigned questions. As students reflect upon the reading ask them to reflect back to the questions that they talked about at the beginning of the lesson, have their opinions changed? (15 minutes).
  5. Ask each of the groups to present their thoughts and perceptions on the focus questions for this topic. (10 minutes). Give students one to two minutes of continuous writing time to reflect about what they thought and how they feel about the reading. Students are to hand this reflection to the teacher at the end of the allowed time.

Optional: After reading through this article it may stimulate your students to learn more about water issues on First Nations. This lesson could also connect to Operation Water Drop and your students may be interested in testing their own drinking water supply and comparing it to an Aboriginal community drinking water supply. For more information regarding Operation Water Drop please visit the Safe Drinking Water Foundation’s website at

Evaluation: Devise a rubric to go with this activity or utilize current rubrics from Operation Water Spirit for Grade 7.

Contemporary Water Issues in Aboriginal Communities Student Reading

Saddle Lake, Yellow Quill and the Safe Drinking Water Foundation

The Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) is a registered charitable organization that has become involved with Aboriginal communities in their plight and fight for safe drinking water. The concept of safe drinking water is simple, it is a basic human need to be able to drink the water, yet with many contaminants now present within the water systems, water may not be safe to drink.

In Canada there are no national regulations regarding water’s safety, rather there are just a series of provincial guidelines. The United Nations has declared that safe drinking water is a basic human right, yet Canada voted against this policy. Canada is the only developed country that does not have national regulations governing drinking water. In 2004 Canada was the only country to vote “no”, declaring that water is “NOT” a basic human right. Canada voted against all other countries on this issue at the United Nations. Instead, in Canada, Aboriginal communities are caught in a grey area. They are regulated by federal standards and regulations yet they are located within provinces that have jurisdiction over the environment, and subsequently the water. Since there is dual jurisdiction it becomes difficult to ensure safe drinking water. There are no clear statistics regarding the condition of water in Aboriginal communities and while there are guidelines regarding water treatment, these are not enforced by government departments.

A year before the Walkerton incident in July of 1999, an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) from the Saskatoon Tribal Council began investigating the large number of serious health issues in the community of Yellow Quill First Nation, and she was concerned it was attributed to the water. The EHO learned that Yellow Quill got its water from pumping water into a reservoir from a stream that only ran for a few days every spring. The EHO also learned that in that same stream, a town upstream dumped its sewage lagoon into the water each spring when the Yellow Quill reservoir was filling. Water quality on this First Nation was so bad that the residents were under “boil water advisory” from 1995 until 2004.

Yellow Quill had to wait nine years before their boil water advisory was rescinded. This is the reality in many First Nations! It is this dual jurisdiction and the lack of response by government officials that may be causing irrevocable damage to the community and its members. In 1999, the EHO repeatedly requested Dr. Hans Peterson, Volunteer Executive Director of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF), to become involved with Yellow Quill. In 2002 he moved to Yellow Quill and lived on the reserve for almost two years. He was instrumental in the development of a new completely biological water treatment system on ground water. It was an innovative approach to water treatment and was developed, piloted and implemented by Associated Engineering and WateResearch Corp. of Saskatoon.

The Yellow Quill First Nation biological and membrane water treatment plant is the first of its kind in Canada. The bio-membrane process has a number of advantages including the fact that no chemicals are used in the biological process, which takes advantage of naturally occurring microorganisms to remove contaminates. A minimum amount of chemicals are required for the membrane process. Yellow Quill's water quality is probably better than water quality anywhere else in Canada, and maybe in all of North America.

Dr. Hans Peterson also worked with Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta, where the first surface water Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane water treatment plant in the world was installed. In Saddle Lake’s treated water, SDWF detected viable protozoan parasites, and had they been able to carry out testing for difficult to kill bacteria and viruses, they are certain that those too would have been found. For example, one chlorine-resistant bacterium, Campylobacter, is present in many treated rural water sources. Campylobacter is the organism that, according to Health Canada, is responsible for most paralysis cases in Canada. Campylobacter is present in many rural drinking water supplies, but it is never tested for in Aboriginal communities. Viruses are linked to many common diseases including heart attacks yet water is not tested for viruses. Most disease causing organisms, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, travel in bunches, which are much more difficult to inactivate than single organisms. At Saddle Lake there are high levels of dissolved organic carbon, which reacts with the chlorine instead of killing the bugs.

The SDWF analyzed samples from Saddle Lake drinking water and advised Saddle Lake Chief and Council to call a Boil Water Advisory in 2004, against the wishes of Health Canada. It wasn’t long before Health Canada realized SDWF scientists were correct and the boil water advisory was in effect for over one year. Dr. Peterson helped Saddle Lake to develop a biological water treatment plant on their surface water. Soon, other Aboriginal and rural communities will be able to benefit from these “pioneer communities” and provide safe drinking water to their citizens - which should be a right enjoyed by all people of Canada. For more information about how you can test your water and do water testing experiments look to the Operation Water Drop program.

Discussion Questions

1. Why is it difficult to regulate water standards on First Nations?


2. What does SDWF do to help First Nations?


3. Compare the stories of Yellow Quill and Saddle Lake, how are they similar and/or different?


4. How do the stories of Yellow Quill and Saddle Lake compare to the situation of your closest First Nation community?


5. What is the United Nations' view on safe drinking water? How is this different from Canada's?