Questions and Answers: Drinking Water and Wastewater in First Nations communities

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Drinking Water Quality Monitoring

Who is responsible for the management of drinking water in First Nations communities?

In First Nations communities located south of 60 degrees parallel in Canada, excluding British Columbia, responsibility for safe drinking water on reserves is shared between First Nations communities and the Government of Canada.

Chiefs and Councils are responsible for planning and developing their capital facilities that provide for the basic infrastructure needs of the community, including drinking water. They are also responsible for the day-to-day operation of water and wastewater systems on reserves, including sampling and testing drinking water, and for issuing drinking water advisories in their communities.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) provides funding and advice regarding planning, procurement, design, construction, upgrading, operation and maintenance and commissioning of water treatment facilities on First Nations reserves. INAC also provides financial support for the training and certification of operators.

Health Canada helps to ensure that drinking water quality monitoring programs are in place in First Nations communities south of 60 degrees parallel in Canada, excluding British Columbia. As part of the British Columbia Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nations Health Governance, on October 1, 2013, Health Canada transferred its role in the design, management, and delivery of First Nations health programming in British Columbia to the new First Nations Health Authority.

Health Canada supports First Nations communities in establishing their own drinking water quality monitoring programs. Health Canada also provides guidance and recommendations to assist Bands in addressing any unacceptable test results. Health Canada has also collaborated with the provinces and territories over the past 30 years to establish the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

Environment Canada develops standards, guidelines and/or protocols for wastewater systems on federal and Aboriginal lands as defined under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, and provides advice and technical expertise on federal legislation requirements.

Who is responsible for safe drinking water in the territories?

The territorial governments are responsible for safe drinking water in all communities in their territories, including First Nations and Inuit communities. Environmental public health and surveillance programs were transferred when the federal government devolved certain health services to the Government of the Northwest Territories in 1988, to the Yukon Territorial Government in 1997 and to the Government of Nunavut in 1999.

Upon request, Health Canada, through the Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, provides scientific support and expertise to the territorial governments.

What is Health Canada's role regarding safe drinking water in First Nations communities?

Through the Drinking Water Program, Health Canada works in partnership with First Nations communities to monitor drinking water as per the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. Health Canada works together with First Nations communities and provides funding to Chief and Councils for drinking water monitoring through its Community-Based Water Monitor program.

A key benefit of the program is that it enables First Nations communities to sample and test their drinking water for microbiological contamination where it is difficult or impossible to do so on a regular basis and/or to get the samples to a laboratory in a timely manner.

Health Canada trains Community-Based Drinking Water Quality Monitors to sample and test the drinking water for potential bacteriological contamination as a final check on the overall safety of the drinking water at tap.

If a community does not have a Community-Based Drinking Water Quality Monitor, an Environmental Health Officer (EHO), a Certified Public Health Inspector employed by Health Canada or First Nations stakeholders, will sample and test drinking water quality, with the community's permission.

EHOs test drinking water quality for chemical, physical and radiological contaminants and maintain quality assurance and quality control.

EHOs review and interpret drinking water quality tests and disseminate the results to First Nations communities. In all situations, when a potential concern about the drinking water quality is identified, the EHO will immediately communicate the appropriate recommendation(s) to Chief and Council for action such as issuing a drinking water advisory. In addition, Health Canada reviews plans for new and upgraded water treatment systems from a public health perspective, and assists First Nations in planning and siting the development of their individual sewage septic systems upon request.

In First Nations communities where Environmental Public Health Programs are transferred – such as British Columbia- the First Nations stakeholders are responsible for drinking water quality monitoring.

What is Health Canada's role regarding safe drinking water from individual wells and wells with fewer than five connections in First Nations communities?

Health Canada has developed the Toolkit for Individual Wells for First Nations that contains public awareness materials for First Nations residents served by individual wells or wells with fewer than five connections. The toolkit includes a step-by-step checklist for visually inspecting and maintaining wells, and for avoiding contamination of a well. Health Canada also offers free bacteriological testing services of drinking water from individual wells when requested by the Chief and Council.

What happens if drinking water quality results in First Nations communities do not meet the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality?

If the EHO's review and interpretation of drinking water quality results indicate that drinking water is not safe, the EHO would immediately communicate recommendation(s) (such as a drinking water advisory) to the Chief and Council for their action.

Health Canada assists First Nations with follow-up sampling and investigation to help identify the source of the problem and provides recommendation(s) on how to rectify it to Chief and Council and, in some situations, to federal partners such as INAC. If an immediate threat to the health and safety of the community is identified, it is the First Nations Chief and Council's responsibility to take necessary action to protect its residents.

Health Canada has developed The Water Advisory Tool Kit for First Nations that contains basic information about issuing and lifting drinking water advisories (DWAs) on-reserve. It is intended to help First Nations inform their communities about water usage in the event a problem arises with the community's tap water. In addition, Health Canada has developed the Procedure for Addressing Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations Communities, South of 60° in collaboration with INAC and other stakeholders. This procedure is a guide for Chief and Council and other involved stakeholders on how to efficiently address the underlying causes of a DWA after it has been issued.

How much is the Government of Canada investing in safe drinking water programs in First Nations communities?

To help improve the monitoring and testing of on-reserve community drinking water, Budget 2016 includes an investment for Health Canada of $141.7 million over five years, starting in fiscal year 2016-17. This complements federal funding through INAC to support clean drinking water and the treatment of wastewater on reserves ($1.8 billion over five years). These investments will also help monitor progress on efforts to end long term drinking water advisories on reserve.

How has Health Canada's investment increased First Nations' capacity to sample and test drinking water quality?

Through joint efforts with First Nations communities, all First Nations communities now have access to trained personnel (Community-Based Drinking Water Quality Monitor or EHO) to sample and test drinking water quality at the tap. As a result of enhanced capacity and increased monitoring frequency, First Nations' and Health Canada's ability to detect potential problems sooner has improved.

Wastewater and Sewage Disposal

Wastewater, also known as sewage, can be harmful to humans because it can spread diseases and pollute surface and groundwater sources. Health Canada's Environmental Public Health Program identifies existing and potential hazards associated with wastewater disposal in order to reduce and prevent public health risks. Program activities focus on community wastewater treatment systems as well as on-site sewage disposal systems.

What wastewater programming does Health Canada deliver in First Nations communities?

Activities related to wastewater disposal in First Nations communities that are provided through the Environmental Public Health Program include:

  • Environmental Public Health Assessment:
    • Provide site and installation inspections for new and expanded on-site sewage (wastewater) disposal systems.
    • Respond to complaints by providing public health inspections of existing on-site sewage disposal systems when appropriate.
    • Provide advice, guidance and recommendations related to on-site sewage disposal systems, including information on appropriate decommissioning of sites.
    • Inspect wastewater treatment systems if there is a public health concern.
    • Provide advice, guidance and recommendations related to wastewater treatment systems.
  • Public Education:
    • Provide public education to home occupants and owners about how to properly maintain an on-site sewage disposal system and reduce risks related to sewage discharge.

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