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Canada must strengthen efforts to guarantee right to water and sanitation for Indigenous Peoples: UN expert

19 April 2024

OTTAWA (19 April 2024) – Canada must step up efforts to eliminate discrimination and marginalisation, particularly of its Indigenous Peoples, and fully uphold the human rights to water and sanitation for all its peoples, a UN expert said today.

“Canada has made strides in recent years to address historical marginalisation and inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation faced by Indigenous Peoples,” said Pedro Arrojo Agudo, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation in a statement at the end of an official visit to the country.

The expert said Canada was moving in the right direction by recognising historic crimes perpetrated towards First Nations and commended Canada for enacting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act in June 2021.

“However, there are still challenges to be addressed, including the recurrence of water advisories, toxic contamination, the criminalisation of water defenders, and the need for a human rights and ecosystems approach to water management, particularly in transboundary watersheds, to develop adaptation strategies to climate change”.

“I received overwhelming direct testimonies about harsh living conditions in the Reserves where First Nations have historically been forced to live and where, in many cases, not even their right to drinking water is guaranteed,” Arrojo Agudo said.

The Special Rapporteur urged Canadian authorities to transfer control of the waters, aquatic ecosystems and lands they rely on within their territories. First Nations Reserves in Canada are significantly smaller than the traditional territory they occupied before the borders were imposed and mapped. These traditional territories continue to hold significance for a Nation's economic, cultural, and spiritual life.

Arrojo Agudo noted that while First Nations’ water supply is under federal jurisdiction, their water sources are often impacted by productive activities and discharges under the control of the Canadian provincial authorities, jeopardising their right to water and sanitation.

“The division of powers should not blur Canada´s ultimate obligation to guarantee human rights to drinking water and sanitation throughout the country,” the expert said, and urged Canada to legally recognize the human rights to drinking water and sanitation at Federal level and that the provinces follow this lead.

Arrojo Agudo expressed concern that extractive activities including mining and hydrocarbon exploration continue breach human rights, particularly the right to water of Indigenous Peoples.

“Indigenous Peoples disproportionally face the brunt of risks of toxic water contamination with serious health impacts,” he said. “It is regrettable that those who cause damage to or pollution of water sources are not being held accountable and required to compensate for the harms,” Arrojo Agudo added.

He also expressed grave concern about the criminalisation, repression and persecution faced by Indigenous Peoples opposing large infrastructure projects.

“These actions violate their rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression,” said Arrojo Agudo. “Canada must uphold the principle of free prior and informed consent while respecting dynamics of consultation and consent established by Indigenous Peoples themselves.”

During his visit, the expert visited Ottawa, Iqaluit, Toronto, Fort McMurray, Vancouver and Smithers, and met with Government officials, representatives of water and sanitation institutions, civil society, water defenders and Indigenous Peoples authorities and organizations.

The Special Rapporteur will present a full report on his visit to the Human Rights Council in September 2024.

Mr. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council in September 2020. From 2016 to 2019, Mr. Arrojo-Agudo served as an elected member of the Spanish Parliament. He was Professor in the Area of Fundamentals of Economic Analysis at the University of Zaragoza from 1989 to 2011 and has been professor emeritus since 2011. During the last three decades, he has focused his research on economics and water management, publishing his work in more than 100 scientific articles and in 70 books.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page: Canada

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