You may have signed petitions and seen the words “save our water” posted in your community—or maybe all you heard was to boycott the mega bottling company Nestlé and wondered why

To understand how Nestlé has affected Canadian waters and Indigenous communities, we have to look back and understand that our “great nation” wasn’t built fairly, and how our peoples and natural resources continue to be exploited.

Lack of access to fresh, safe water

lake canadaPhoto by Kevin Noble on UnsplashCanada is glamorized. We have 62 percent of the world’s lakes and 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. We’ve even been ranked as one of United Nations’ top places in the world to live—for the privileged, that is. Because less than an hour from some of Canada’s main cities, there are Indigenous communities who don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water. To date, there are 57 drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada, a number which is reduced from the hundreds in 2016.

This lack of clean and safe drinking water is one of the greatest violations of the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation. Yet, it’s been happening, and continues to happen.

Though the number of advisories has reduced, progress isn’t happening fast enough. There are still an estimated 63,000 people who haven’t had drinkable water for more than a decade.

The Six Nations in Ontario (comprised of the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora) have paid thousands of dollars to be connected to a nearby well, but found the water to be polluted with sewage contamination, increasing the risk for bacterial disease like E. coli. With no workable plumbing, the risk of disease and health conditions in Indigenous communities rises with viruses, bacteria and parasites in water sources that can cause hepatitis, gastroenteritis, giardia lamblia, scabies, ringworm and acne.

Though the federal government recently announced its commitment to end all remaining advisories, which includes spending $6 billion for clean water projects and other infrastructure, they haven’t provided a new deadline. Since the federal government failed to deliver on their first promise back in 2015, Indigenous communities aren’t holding their breath.

How Nestlé has exasperated the problem

Since Canada does have access to so much fresh water, we’ve become an attractive destination over the years for bottled water brands like Aquafina, Dasani and, of course, Nestlé, to pump and bottle the “abundant” freshwater.

Nestlé is the world’s biggest bottler, and prior to “exiting the Canadian market,” was extracting 3.6m litres of water daily from Six Nations’ treaty land, without their approval.

Looking back, the provinces have owned Canadian waters since 1930 when the federal government delegated ownership with the National Resources Transfer Act. Within this act, it’s stated that the provinces have a right to sell the water to companies—like Nestlé. But, it’s also listed that water is supposed to be regulated by the federal government, which is responsible for the natural environment and Canada’s waterways.

According to the Canadian constitution, the federal government has a duty to accommodate and consult First Nations when making environmental decisions, and to make sure outside parties do the same when extracting any natural resources, including water, from Indigenous land. The land that Nestlé was extracting from, from the nearby Erin well, sits on the land given to Six Nations under the 1701 Nanfan Treaty and the 1784 Haldimand Tract.

The extraction has increased drought around the Erin well, drying up the wetlands surrounding the properties and depleting the local fish populations of salmon, trout, pike and pickerel. Drought and environmental problems are supposed to be addressed during the granting of new water permits (when scientists and other experts examine the local vegetation and fish populations) before deciding how much well water can “safely” be extracted, but Ontario was—and continues to—give companies the right to pump water on expired permits.

The province has a history of going back on their word. When this land was first “rewarded” to the Six Nations for siding with the British during the American Revolution, the Six Nations were given 3,845 square kilometres around the Grand River. Ontario later broke that treaty, reducing it to its current 194 square kilometres.

Now, the province is being paid $503.71 per million litres that Nestlé extracts, whereas First Nations are getting nothing. Though money won’t bring back the extracted water, and the past can’t be undone, the Six Nations traditional government is working every day to take back land that is rightfully theirs and their children’s.

The current and future demand for fresh water

Demand for fresh water has grown twice as fast as population growth, and the United Nations predicts that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live with dire water shortages, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under stressed water conditions. Though this should mean working together on protecting and preserving these resources, this news has just sparked more corporate greed as companies fight over who gets to drain the untapped springs.

Actively anticipating these shortages, Nestlé and other companies are trying to lock in as much of the world’s water as possible. With higher temperatures predicted and climate change leading to less water and more thirst, we’re seeing a Lorax-bottling-oxygen type of scenario here.

The former CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe made his thoughts on the matter known in a 2005 documentary, “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.”

Last year, Makaśa Looking Horse, a 21-year-old born on Six Nations territory who is Mohawk and Lakota, took action against Nestlé. She organized a community-wide march and boycott of the products, which may have contributed to the company's decision to exit Canada.Makaśa Looking Horse,Makaśa Looking HorseIn July 2020, Nestlé said it was selling its Pure Life bottled water business to Ice River Springs "as Ontario prepares to give its municipalities veto power over new water bottling permits." Ice River Springs has been one of the largest water bottling operations in Canada, even before the acquisition of Nestlé—and water bottling for profit, no matter how companies advertise their recycling programs, is not sustainable.

Unfortunately, Nestlé's exit won’t undo the damage. It takes 5.5 litres of water to produce a small 500 ml bottle—0.5 litres in the bottle and another 5 litres that is contaminated when making the plastic bottle from oil. Since most of the groundwater is hundreds of years old, it would take centuries for that groundwater to replenish after it’s been extracted. This estimated 500-year replenishing doesn’t cover the effects of a warming planet on the water systems.

This myth of abundance through the lens of a profit-driven market has allowed Canadian bottled water exports to the U.S. to increase by 383 percent in eight years. Though the Ontario government recently extended a moratorium on new or expanded bottled water takings, a full ban would be needed to begin to reverse the changes. Our water sources are already completely under stress from this increased commercial use.

What to do now?

As much as Nestlé’s departure from Canada is seen as a positive, they haven’t dissolved as a company. They’re still focusing on their premium and international products under pseudonyms or sister companies, but they did feel this hit. The declining demand for bottled water in the last year did work and is still working. The community voices have been heard.

Water needs to be protected, to be made public, and no one should have to go without clean water. The commodification of water is never fair, and the fight against it isn’t finished.

“It’s important to raise our voices around the issues of water governance and water health,” Makaśa says. “We need more people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to be advocates for us and show up at the decision-making tables in support of clean water and the rights of First Nations communities […] We have to do everything we can to save our water and make sure that it remains accessible to everybody.”

Sign a pledge to protect our waters here.