Monday, December 22, 2008


When I was a kid, we were taught that Canada had the world's largest supply of fresh water. We had something like 3 million lakes and endless rivers clear enough to drink from even if your mom didn't think it was a good idea.

And while Wikipedia now insists the "Most Fresh Water" resides in Brazil with Russia, China and Canada close behind, it's hard to find a tourist poster for the country that doesn't still feature pristine lakes, glacial streams or Niagara Falls.

We've got water everywhere. But for thousands of us, there's not a drop fit to drink.

I was born on the Siksika Reservation just east of Calgary. And before anybody starts thinking that hiring me makes them eligible for one of those Aboriginal incentives our governments are so fond of -- sorry, they just had the closest hospital when I was ready to make my debut.

But I grew up with a lot of "Indian" kids (the acceptable descriptive back then) and soon became aware that the way they lived was different from the way the rest of us did. The housing on the reserve wasn't as good as it was in the nearby towns. The people were poorer and they seemed to have more problems. And while we got our water from a tap and had indoor toilets, they relied on a communal well and outhouses.

A lot has changed for Canada's Aboriginal peoples over the last 50 years. But in a land still rich in fresh water, thousands living on reservations don't have access to it.

We've all heard the stories of Northern outposts relying on water supplies tainted by raw sewage. Every time one of those makes the newspapers, there's a national outcry. And then it fades. And then nothing happens.

Right now as you're pouring yourself a tall glass of water there are thousands of Canadian children without access to drinking water unless it comes in an imported bottle and forced to visit community centers if they want a bath or a shower.

And the only difference between you and them is that you live wherever you live and they live on a reservation.

This has been going on for years in some places. The continuous "boil-water" advisories, the recurring epidemics, the endless indignity of fetching the day's drinking water and carrying it home in a pail.

All of this could have been solved long ago. Some say $15 Million could solve it permanently. $15 Million! 1/1000th of the money we're spending for the Vancouver Olympics. 1/100th of what was granted this week to our failing automakers.

Money in both cases granted immediately without the need for the reams of feasibility studies and environmental assessments that seem necessary anytime a little is needed by our less fortunate citizens.

Good to know there'll be no thirsty athletes in 2010 and you'll still be able to get a cold Evian or Valverde at the Chrysler dealership when you drop in for a test drive. That Mohawk kid trying to get through his school day -- well, he'll have to wait.

I think we all know the problem here is a political one. And there isn't a political party in Canada who is blameless. They've all held power in one place or another where the lack of drinkable water on reservations has been a concern.

But in the Canadian tradition of political parties, they reward their supporters with consulting contracts and ministry reports that carve away the money regularly set aside for these projects. It's much easier to study an issue than simply solve it and that's how most of those in government service make their salaries.

Gosh, if the problem were solved how would they justify their jobs or their hefty consulting fees?

$15 Million. Less than the budget of "Passchendaele". Fewer public dollars than get spent each year on Film festivals and script development.

During the Christmas season, it's usually pretty easy to run into all stripes of politicians from local officials to your MP, a cabinet Minister or somebody from an opposition party who'd like to have those jobs. They're hosting parties, attending levees and, this year in particular, looking for your support for or against a coalition.

When one of these guys buttonholes you, or you manage to get his or her attention, could you change the subject and ask them one question?

Isn't it time every kid in this country could turn on a tap and get a glass of water?

Because you can't be a rich nation when so many among us live this poorly. You can't be a nation that wants to be great or thought of highly and still treats its children this way. And there's no such thing as National Pride when this kind of shame and disgrace keeps hanging around.

This Christmas season, please add this issue to whatever you're talking to your representatives about. And don't let them just smile, mumble something compassionate and walk away. Demand a commitment. This needs to be dealt with now.

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