More than 1,000 and counting Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda members are seeking reparations for two drinking water advisories on the First Nation that lasted nearly a decade put together.
According to Stoney Health Services (SHS), drinking water advisories were in place for the First Nation from Nov. 27, 2001 to Aug. 2, 2005 and again from Oct. 20, 2006 to March 21, 2014.
Earlier this month, the health authority held a three-day First Nations Drinking Water Settlement signing blitz at the Bearspaw Youth Centre in Mînî Thnî (Morley), where 200 to 300 people submitted claims each day, with reasons ranging from having experienced skin irritation to more serious health issues including organ failure and cancer.
“The biggest one, I think, is eczema – it’s on the claim form for skin, hair and nails,” said Myrna Teegee, SHS Indigenous liaison support worker. “Many people are making claims for issues with eczema on their face, their feet, any part of their body affected by bathing in water during the advisory periods.
“Then there are others making claims for the negative impacts to their health from drinking the water; it wrecks their stomachs, their intestines, they can end up with diverticulitis … and it just goes on and on.”
Prior to the signing blitz, SHS had helped distribute more than 200 applications.
The settlement, which opened to claimants last year, includes compensation for individuals and impacted First Nations subject to a drinking water advisory that lasted at least one year between November 20, 1995, and June 20, 2021. Claims can also be made on the behalf of dependents and deceased individuals.
Money distributed through the settlement will include commitments to fund the construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure to help people enjoy regular access to safe drinking water in their homes.
The settlement was agreed upon after a years-long battle between First Nations and the federal government. It includes $1.5 billion for people deprived of clean drinking water, $6 billion to upgrade water infrastructure, and $400 million for the First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.
The claim period was initially set to end on March 7, but was extended earlier this week to end on the same date in 2024.
Based on the number of people who came to the SHS signing blitz each day, Teegee said it’s likely the settlement has seen a big influx in claim uptake leading up to the initial deadline.
“We actually were planning to host another event right away because we couldn’t see everyone that had questions or needed a declaration from us on their form,” she said.
With 4,546 residents living in Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation between Mînî Thnî, Eden Valley, and Big Horn, as of the latest available census data in 2016, it is likely there will be more applicants before the new deadline.
The health authority made legal counsel available at the signing blitz to answer questions regarding what people may be eligible for or where it might make sense to seek additional legal advice.
According to the claim form, compensation under the settlement depends on the total amount of funding available and the number of eligible claims received. Additional compensation claims, however, can also be made for specified injuries, but that is an optional part of the form.
Each specified injury must also include the name and type of health care practitioner the claimant saw or received medical treatment from for the injury.
While it covers a range of health conditions from depression to neurological harm, the form does not cover heart-related issues or diabetes – two areas Teegee said several people she’s heard from claim injury.
“It’s really sad because people have numerous injuries from their own drinking water and as it is, almost every community member that I’ve spoken to in the last year about it has asked why heart issues, diabetes, arthritis, and other health conditions aren’t included,” she said.
Teegee is hopeful claimants will receive the compensation they deserve, though she believes a price cannot be assigned to one’s health. She said there needs to be more preventative action when it comes to providing First Nations with clean, accessible drinking water.
Water quality in Canada ranks among the best in the world – second only to Sweden in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. The United Nations stipulates the need for safe drinking water as a basic human right.
Despite this, First Nations communities face 26 times higher than national average of carrying water-borne diseases, according to a 2016 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The same report found people living on reserves are 90 times more likely to have no access to running water when compared to non-Indigenous people.
Since November 2015, 138 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted in Canada. There are currently 32 long-term advisories in 28 communities across the country. A community is added to the list of long-term advisories after the water designation has been in place for a full year.
Each Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation band council – Wesley, Bearspaw and Goodstoney – has filed for a claim for the settlement with their drinking water advisory periods falling under the same dates, but under separate bands.
After an administrator reviews and determines paperwork to be complete and eligible, the impacted First Nation will receive a $500,000 base payment, according to the settlement. Additional payments, equal to 50 per cent of the amounts paid to eligible individuals who lived in the impacted First Nation community during a long-term drinking water advisory, will be paid out after the claim period deadline.
Teegee said $500,000 alone is not enough to completely solve the First Nation’s drinking water issues, particularly when the amounts from the three bands can’t necessarily be combined given the geographical distance and separate water systems of the communities they represent.
“I don’t know how much we will get and I don’t know if it will come close to what actually needs to be done,” she said.
“It upsets me because we need to make sure we have clean drinking water for future generations.”
Originally from Takla Lake First Nation in B.C., Teegee was initially hired to work for Bearspaw First Nation. She was transferred from her role in April 2021 to assist the SHS Mînî Thnî Crisis Support team.
Part of that has involved managing and answering questions about the drinking water settlement in the community given the increasing need to manage a response and for a required guarantor signature on every form.
The settlement does provide three support groups to those in need of comfort and emotional support, help with claim applications and payments, and access to a class counsel team of lawyers – at no charge.
For Teegee, however, it remains an undertaking that has been extremely physically and mentally taxing, especially after having done the same with the Indian Day School Settlement, which finished taking application submissions last July.
She said her email was already blowing up after the water settlement announcement last March, but her phone started ringing off the hook after SHS hosted an info session about it in June.
“It’s been an extremely busy and challenging time, with some of us doing this plus our regular duties,” she said. “The stories aren’t easy to hear and at the end of the day, you still wonder if it’s going to be enough.
“This whole process … to be able to trust that Truth and Reconciliation is behind this … this responsibility we’ve had to undertake should not be on the shoulders of community members. It’s not really fair.”
SHS was planning to host another signing blitz in the coming weeks but will now likely wait until sometime in the spring or fall with the recent deadline extension, Teegee added.
According to the announcement, claims for individual damages submitted before March 7, 2023, will be assessed and eligible payments will be processed.
“Claims submitted between March 8, 2023, and March 7, 2024, will be assessed, and eligible payments will be processed after March 7, 2024,” reads the announcement. “All claims for Specified Injuries compensation will be processed after March 7, 2024.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.