National Indigenous History Month: The Water Crisis Part 2

In honour of National Indigenous History month in Canada, our team has been writing a number of articles highlighting different aspects of Indigenous history. This article is part 2 of 2 and focuses on the water crisis within The Six Nations of the Grand River. Part 1 focused on issues relating to drinking water advisories and the federal government.


There has been a historically systemic marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canada when it comes to the availability of clean drinking water and access to adequate sanitation services. In Part 1 of this article, National Indigenous History Month: The Water Crisis Part 1, we discussed the federal government and Canada’s Indigenous groups, in general, having inadequate access to water and sanitation. This time, in Part 2 of this article, we will be looking at a specific case – that of The Six Nations of Grand River.

The Six Nations of Grand River


Figure 1 – Distance from Toronto to Six Nations

While Canada has been regularly ranked as one of the United Nation’s top places to live in the world, a mere 90 or so minutes away from Toronto – Canada’s largest and wealthiest city – residents of the Six Nations of the Grand River (“Six Nations”) Indigenous reserve experience a different reality. The Six Nations is the largest Indigenous reserve in Canada regarding population, and the second largest in size. Located between Hamilton, Brantford, and Simcoe in Ontario, Six Nations is the only reserve on the continent where all 6 Iroquois nations live together. The Six Nations consist of the following groups:

  • Mohawk
  • Oneida
  • Cayuga
  • Seneca
  • Onondaga
  • Tuscarora

At present, the reserve spans about 46,500 acres of 190km2, which represents only about 5% of the land granted to the Six Nations by the 1784 Haldimand Treaty. While many Indigenous groups avoided participation in the American Revolution (1765-1783), others chose to join in the fight, such as the Six Nations, believing that if the British won the war, it would be the most desirable outcome for them. In 1784, Quebec Governor Frederick Haldimand established the Haldimand Proclamation to open land for those Six Nations people who chose to migrate, rather than live under the jurisdiction of the United States.

Figure 2 – Treaty Lands vs. Reserve Lands

According to the Proclamation, they were supposed to be allotted 6 miles on each side of Grand River, beginning at Lake Erie and extending to the head of the river, “which Them and Their Posterity are to enjoy forever.”

However, from 1784 to date, about 270,000 acres of land up to the source of the river remains in outstanding treaty land entitlement to the Six Nations peoples (see Figure 2). According to the Haldimand Proclamation, the Crown (Canada) was meant to hold the property in trust on behalf of the Six Nations; stating the government would in turn provide a permanent means of support. Any income earned as payment from any sales or leases of land, royalties, or fees (e.g. permits, licenses) were to be held by the Crown in trust to comprise a return on investments for the Six Nations. However, Crown (Ontario) has, since 1867, assumed ownership of all lands, mines, minerals, and royalties as being the Province of Ontario’s.

As set out in the grant of the land, the Crown had the duty to protect the Six Nations’ lands for their sole use. In many cases, not only did the government fail to do so, but the Six Nations feel Crown officials “actively encouraged” settlement upon those lands. Additionally, they feel, “as a result of this intrusion, the lands became unsuitable as hunting grounds” and they were forced to find alternative means of support.

Health & Water Safety

In 2018, the Guardian carried out an interview with mother and Six Nations member Iokarenhtha Thomas on the health and safety issues of the water crisis in the community. According to Thomas, living on the reserve has been a “challenging existence, full of frustration, exhaustion and health problems, reminiscent of life in some developing countries.” In this interview, Thomas explained how she had lived without running tap water since she was 16 years old. She currently has 5 children, whom all lack access to things commonplace elsewhere in the region, such as working toilets and showers. If they have to wash or use the toilet, they are forced to use a bucket.

Figures 3-5 – Water Refills (Guardian Article)

In order to get water for her family, Thomas drives twice a week with her husband with as many pails, jugs, and other containers they can find, and drive 8km to a public tap to fill them all up and bring them back home (see Figure 3). However, this water is not drinkable; so once a week they must also drive 10km to the nearest town, Caledonia, where they buy bottled water for drinking. While the residents of the Six Nations of Grand River are forced to travel several km to get any water, Nestle Waters Canada has been, and continues to pump millions of litres of water per day from the Treaty lands to bottle.

Figures 6 & 7 – Dirty Tap Water & Unconnected Homes

As of 2018, 91% of the homes in the Six Nations were not connected to the water treatment plant, according to the director of public works for Six Nations. Some residents, like Thomas, have no water at all, while others have water in their taps, but its much too polluted for consumption. A lack of water has been linked to a series of health issues, including hepatitis A, gastroenteritis, giardia lamblia (“beaver fever”), impetigo, scabies, ringworm, and acne.

Over the years, Six Nations has been subject to a number of short-term boil-water advisories and local testing has shown contaminated water within its wells. Keep in mind that this is not a remote location being faced with logistical problems of treating or transporting clean water to those living there. In reality, a high quality water purification facility was established in 2013, at a cost of approximately $41M. However, it still only connects to 9% of homes, out of around 13,000 residents. According to local residents, funds to actually operate the plant and connect its services to homes slowed down after installation.

Why is this? Well, people living on reserves do not technically own the land they live on outright. If building a house, you’d have to pay for all of the house’s connecting infrastructure, including hydro poles, gas lines, water pipes, everything has to be done yourself. You would have to pay for every single step of that process. In the end, the total costs for making your house habitable can cost upwards of $70,000.

Additionally, it was no easy feat to get the treatment plant established in the first place. In April 2013, the Hamilton Spectator reported, “After years of pressing for federal assistance with the project, Paul Martin’s Liberal government made a $10 million commitment to the plant in 2006.” It continued, “after years of delays and escalating cost estimates, the Harper government eventually agreed to $26 million in support.” However, the Ontario government did not contribute any funding to the plant. Due to this, the Band Council was forced to negotiate a bank loan for more than $15M to be able to move forward with the plant.

Now, in 2021 the plant has been established in the community, but the majority of residents remain unconnected.

Nestle Waters Canada

The issues surrounding Nestle Waters Canada, the Six Nations, and the government (both federal and provincial) are so significant and span years, making it an important, but incredibly lengthly topic of discussion. As such, we will only very briefly go into the subject.

The commercialization of water, and the denial of the resource to those in need, currently exists within the province, including the Six Nations reserve, where Nestle Waters Canada owns and operates groundwater wells for water bottling.

Figure 8 – PTTW

In 2016, former Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, imposed a 2-year moratorium on all new and expanded PTTWs for bottling due to gaps in knowledge in their impacts, and due to high public interest. According to the Ontario Government, the 2-year moratorium was meant to allow the water bottling industry time to amend any renewal applications so they may be in compliance with the new technical requirements that would come into effect in the spring of 2018. However, a number of corporations, including Nestle continued to pump water on expired permits.

According to the Council of Canadians, on January 22, 2018, Nestle representatives attended a meeting with the Six Nations Band Council Committee, to seek support for the renewal of their PTTW. In this informal meeting, elected Chief Hill asked the Nestle representatives whether they would shut down operations if the Six Nations did not agree with the existence of any PTTW on their lands. Nestle was unable to provide a sufficient answer, and Chief Hill concluded the meeting with a final remark: “the truth is, you are taking the water out of the ground and we do not want you to.”

The MECP representative present at the meeting, Anna Milner, acknowledged the Ministry’s legal duty to consult, and expressed the Ministry’s desire for Nestle to conduct meaningful consultation as well. However, the 2018 meeting was a ‘meet and greet’ and not a formal consultation; and since the Ministry was present in the meeting, and was made aware of severity of the Six Nations concerns over Nestle’s operations, they should have required more from the corporation before moving forward.

Figures 7 & 8 – Nestle Waters Canada

Unfortunately, due to the relevant policies in place, the corporation has since applied to renew its permits, while continuing to extract water without the consent of the Six Nations on whose territory it operates, and in direct opposition from several Indigenous and settler groups. As well, even though Nestle continues to pay the Ontario government for their water extraction, the Six Nations, who have legal ownership of their resources, see none of the profits. In reality, Nestle has been stealing the Six Nations’ water, packaging it, and selling it back to them for a profit.


The ongoing water crisis for the Six Nations of the Grand River illustrates a severe problem. Not only does it illustrate a lack of commitment to reconciliation by the federal government, but also exposes the exploitation of Canada’s freshwater occurring, and it is time for the government to take responsibility.

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