OTTAWA—Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, says some Canadians might be shocked by a new bishops statement about the right to safe drinking water, particularly what it says about Canada.

The Statement on the Right to Safe Drinking Water was issued Oct. 9 by the CCCB’s Justice and Peace Commission and emphasizes Canada’s many Indigenous communities facing unsafe water advisories.

“When we talk about our own Canadian backyard, we find in many remote areas there is a problem,” Archbishop Miller said in an interview. “We’re not used to thinking of Canada as having a drinking water problem.”

Archbishop Miller said the portion of the statement that talks about Canada “might shock” some people. “It’s a good thing it’s come out in the open,” he said.

The statement examines from the perspective of Scripture and Catholic social doctrine the right to water, the problem of its privatization for corporate profit, and the ongoing issue of unsafe drinking water in some Indigenous communities in Canada, said the CCCB.

On Sept. 1, Pope Francis focused on water in his Message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2018-2028 as the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.

Archbishop Miller, who is a member of the Justice and Peace Commission, said until working on the document, “I hadn’t really thought too much about unsafe drinking water in Canada.”

“I thought about conserving water. I never dreamt there was any place in Canada where I couldn’t drink the water that was coming out of a tap; that was like the Third World 40 years ago.”

The reasons for lack of clean water on reserves vary: in some cases, a treatment system is present but has been improperly designed, installed, or maintained, or cannot meet the required capacity, the document said. “In other First Nations communities, toxic chemicals in the water supply, such as uranium, have made the water unusable.”

In some communities, such as the Shoal Lake First Nation, “there simply is no treatment plant and residents must haul drinking water by themselves,” it said. “This state of affairs is disgraceful in a country like Canada. We appreciate that the Canadian government has committed to ending all long-term First Nations drinking water advisories by 2021.”

“It’s a simple little document,” Archbishop Miller said. “I think it reminds us. It shames Canadians a bit, calls things to mind we shouldn’t be too self-righteous about in our ecological consciousness.”

The illustrated 14-page statement begins with a short theological statement on the significance of water; then explains why the right to safe drinking water is a human right linked to the right to life.

“It’s readable and helpful,” the archbishop said, noting he hopes it will be useful for teachers.

Joe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, is “pleased that they mentioned the 174 First Nations that had drinking water advisories last May.”

Highlighting this issue and encouraging Canadians to move on improving water supplies for Indigenous Canadians is a “way of reconciliation,” Gunn said.

But the statement “could have gone farther.”  

Gunn pointed out water is cited 47 times in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, which is also cited in the new CCCB document.

The statement also condemns moves to privatize water supplies and the rampant use of bottled water, often taken from local municipal water supplies to be marked up exorbitantly.

“If this letter moves Canadian communities, if it moves our churches to stop using bottled water, to keep water as a public good, a human right, that’s a good thing,” Gunn said.

“The one thing they didn’t talk about that’s huge (is) the whole question of raw sewage flushed into waterways.” He pointed out Ottawa flushes raw sewage into the Ottawa River when the sewerage system gets overloaded by rain, while some communities like Victoria, B.C., dump raw sewage into the ocean.

“We should be aware of our consumption patterns,” said Archbishop Miller. “Like any resource we shouldn’t squander it; we should use it appropriately.”

In Vancouver more and more people are carrying metal water bottles with them, and water fountains are available for them to fill up, the archbishop said. “Our tap water is among the best in the world.”

The document suggested action items such as avoiding bottled water, reducing water consumption, joining a conservation group that protects lakes and rivers, and ensuring the federal government follows through on its promise of safe drinking water for Indigenous communities.

“Make your voice heard to your political representatives to ensure that Canada’s fresh water remains a public good and is not monopolized by private companies,” it said.