No Running Water

Centre for Human Rights Research manager and former reporter Helen Fallding provided an overview of First Nations water and wastewater issues on September 10, 2012.

Falding screened No Running Water, the 2010 Winnipeg Free Press documentary that shed light on First Nations water supply and sanitation issues. More than 3,000 First Nations homes do not have clean running water, many in the Island Lake region of northeastern Manitoba. Nearly half of the region’s 10,000 residents do not have clean running water in their homes. These residents collect water for daily use from nearby lakes and communal taps, and must use outhouses and indoor pails as toilets.  As a result, some of the residents use less than 15 litres of water a day; the average Winnipeg resident uses 180 litres of water a day.

Though the video raised public awareness, Fallding said the federal government did not take action until more than a year after the video’s release. Last fall, the Canadian government announced it would pay to equip 100 homes in the Island Lake region with indoor plumbing.

Fallding explained that the No Running Water series also sparked interest in the research community.  More than 30 researchers from a variety of fields are collaborating with First Nations communities to address these issues. Many of these researchers will speak throughout this seminar series. First Nations water and wastewater issues are also a priority area of the Centre for Human Rights Research.

The Critical Conversations seminar series was designed to start an ongoing conversation on First Nations and the Right to Water. Each week we posted some of the most interesting questions raised by our audience.

Issues discussed this week:

How does the general public view First Nations water and wastewater issues?

One student shared that some people are taking action. For example, her child’s school raised enough money to purchase a water purifying machine for St. Theresa Point, a community in the Island Lake region. Unfortunately, she feels the broader population is characterized by a “culture of resistance” due to underlying racism.

Many of the homes featured in the video were messy and dirty. What do you think about the decision to feature these homes?

One First Nations student said the images “made us feel dirty – this is how our homes are presented… Not everybody’s house looks like that.” She said such misrepresentations are part of the reason many First Nations people are hesitant to work with journalists or researchers.

She and others also acknowledged that because the images used in No Running Water have shock value, they grab people’s attention in a way that less vivid images might not.

Despite evidence that not having running water leads to health problems, Canadians and their governments still aren’t acting. What are some of the psychological barriers involved? How can they be overcome?

A psychology master’s student shared that people are fundamentally motivated to believe their social systems are fair and just, and that people generally get what they deserve. When faced with an injustice that threatens these beliefs, people often respond defensively. One example is the common argument that First Nations residents without water should simply move to another community. This student discussed recent research that found simply reminding people of their own community connections decreased support for the relocation argument and increased sympathetic, pro-social attitudes towards First Nations water supply and sanitation issues.

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