Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with an abundance of natural resources, but it's also fraught with poverty and inequality — and Indigenous communities often bear the worst of these hardships. 

Water access in particular continues to remain a significant problem, as a lack of infrastructure and centralized water systems seriously hinders the lives and livelihood of many First Nations communities across the country. 

As of Dec. 14, there are still 42 boiling water advisories in effect in Canada that disproportionately affect First Nations peoples. These advisories indicate that residents must boil water before it's safe to be consumed, and they're typically issued where there is a risk of infection from bacteria, viruses, or parasites.

The Canadian government has gradually been taking measures to address the issue, but private companies have historically benefited from it. 

For example, the food giant Nestlé drew what activists estimate to be 3.6 million litres of water from the aquifers of Grand River, Ontario, reselling it to Indigenous communities at artificially inflated rates as part of its bottled water operations. 

The extraction required the company to pay a mere $503.73 per million litres to the government of Ontario, according to the Guardian. Meanwhile, residents were not consulted nor offered any compensation, yet they were left with virtually no choice but to walk dozens of miles to fill up water jugs or buy branded bottled water for personal use.

This is because, despite the Canadian constitution saying the federal government has a “duty to accommodate and consult” First Nations on such decisions, provinces have the legal right to decide how water is used and distributed within their borders.

Makaśa Looking Horse, a Six Nations environmental activist, has been at the forefront of this issue, highlighting the many social, health, and ecological impacts of corporations' activity on water resources and Indigenous communities. 

She says she and her family had always felt intimately connected to environmental justice and Mother Earth — long before Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg helped propel the cause to international attention. 

"[Getting] involved in water work was at the core of my belief system, teachings, way of life, and the way I was brought up,” Looking Horse told Global Citizen. “I was rooted and grounded in my culture and [the idea] that we need to take care of our water and our future generations. That's why my family and I have always participated in climate action, but it wasn't really labelled as such."

The 24-year-old activist has led a tireless campaign against Nestlé, including legal actions, speeches at the United Nations, and demonstrations in front of the company plants. In 2018, during World Water Week, she organized a rally on social media, gathering thousands of people from across the country.

"They're stealing water, making billions off of it, and selling it back to us while saying that water is a human right," she said. "All of it is complete insanity." 

The campaign culminated in a cease and desist letter demanding that Nestlé Canada stop all operations in the Grand River area. In March 2021, the company sold its bottled water operations in North America, which environmentalists and advocacy groups considered a victory. (Nestlé, however, told the Toronto Star that neither the letter nor public pressure had anything to do with the decision, citing business reasons instead.)

Despite this success, Looking Horse is hardly celebrating just yet. While Nestlé has left the area, she says compensation is still needed to address the long-term health and environmental costs associated with the company's activity.

For example, because it relied on aquifers instead of running water to produce its bottled water like most of its competitors, groundwater supply has been significantly impacted, as these bodies take decades or longer to replenish, the Guardian reported. To make matters worse, the area was already affected by droughts, leading to dropping water tables. 

Plastic pollution is another likely long-term consequence of these activities as plastic bottles often end up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose, or in bodies of water, where they are ingested by wildlife. 

Looking Horse is now focusing her efforts on getting reparations for the damage caused and addressing the environmental racism, deep-rooted inequality, and colonialism that has led to the current crisis. 

"It's not just an Indigenous thing; it's a global issue," she said.

"If the youth and everybody — Indigenous peoples, Afro-Indigenous, the LGBTQ community — come together as we have before, then we can make some change." 

Community Heroes

Defeat Poverty

This Indigenous Activist Is Taking a Stand for Clean Water Access in Canada

By Sarah El Gharib