Google ‘water crisis in Canada’, tell a friend what you find about it, and then tell the politicians.
Those are the three things Hasan Syed, 28, of Toronto, would like you to do about the water crisis facing hundreds of First Nations reserves, and the thousands of families who live, drink, cook and bathe on them across Turtle Island (Canada).
Syed is a recent nursing graduate from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay who only recently discovered that many First Nations communities lack clean drinking water — but this revelation, combined with his Muslim duty to help others, led him to do something about it in a big way.
Beginning last April 10, he ran and walked from Vancouver to Ottawa to raise awareness, arriving on Parliament Hill Nov. 9 for an official ending rally.
“These are people’s lives we’re talking about. It’s not a game. I hope things will change,” he said at a gathering, co-sponsored by Nibi Emosaawdamajig, Sacred Water Circle, and Nogojiwanong Youth Solidarity Initiative Nov. 3 at Trent University, at which he shared his story and his passion to inspire others to “help correct the wrong that was written centuries ago”.
“I feel, if the government wanted to, it could eradicate it over-night,” he said.
According to Health Canada’s online list of drinking water advisories, south of the 60th parallel and not including British Columbia, there are about 150 water advisories for First Nations, mostly “boil water”, some of which have lasted for decades.
There are also a number of “do not consume” advisories, issued when a contaminant can’t be removed from the water by boiling. It means tap water should not be used for cooking, drinking, feeding pets, brushing teeth, bathing infants and toddlers, washing fruits and vegetables, or making infant formula or other drinks.
Some communities lack any running drinking water, relying only on trucks and cisterns to provide clean water, and many households rely on well water, which is often contaminated, noted the international Human Rights Watch group in a 2016 report.
Exposure to the contaminants found in this water can cause illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal disorders to increased risk of cancer, said the report. Knock-on effects – like bathing less when people can’t trust their water – includes the proliferation or worsening of skin infections, eczema, psoriasis, and other skin conditions, it continued.
When Syed first learned of this, he was shocked. He immigrated to Canada at age 10 with his family from Pakistan, but well-remembers life in his native country and his mother’s daily time-consuming task of boiling water, straining it through a cheese cloth, and placing it in a cooler to make it drinkable.
“We left Pakistan to come here to find a place where there is water,” he said. “When I learned about the situation with First Nations it didn’t make logical sense. I couldn’t comprehend it. How was this possible?”
Syed explained that according to Islam it is mandatory that when there is injustice, action must be taken against it.
“So God was asking me, ‘what are you going to do?’.”
His journey from the West Coast to Ontario took 193 days and covered 4,800 kilometres. Along the way he visited many First Nations communities and learned about their histories. He learned about the pass system once use by government officials to control the movements of Indigenous people; he learned about blankets they were given infected with small pox. He knew when he was entering a reserve because the roads changed from paved to dirt.
“It was very enlightening in that sense.”
He said the topic of unclean water for First Nations is not on the minds of most Canadians, and many people think the government is taking care of Indigenous people.
That’s why he asks people to share his concerns and educate others. He also believes that politicians need to know that the settler population is aware of the situation.
“We need to ask them ‘what are you going to do for our First Nations brothers and sisters?’ It takes a collaborative voice to make change,” Syed said. “It’s up to us to speak up and come together. The work is just beginning. Until there is no child without clean drinking water, our job hasn’t ended.”
Georgie Horton-Baptiste of the Sacred Water Circle introduced Syed to the Trent gathering, and said her Indigenous leaders have been speaking about the problem for years “and not a whole lot has been done.”
“I don’t know why this is. I’m sure if it happened to the city of Peterborough they would work on it right away.”
She also said this is the first time she has witnessed anyone from outside Indigenous circles taking on this cause.
“I am happy to have this young man’s voice added,” she said.
By Melodie McCullough