Traverse water
Artwork courtesy of Jackie Traverse

Researchers at the universities of Manitoba, Winnipeg and Brock teamed up with First Nation citizens and other community partners from 2013-17 to  develop new ways to confront public apathy about the serious problem of poor drinking water and wastewater disposal. Hundreds of First Nation homes do not have indoor plumbing and more than 100 First Nation communities are typically under a drinking water advisory. In 2011, the Canadian government estimated that 39% of water systems and 14% of wastewater systems on First Nations were “high risk.” The cost of fixing these problems was estimated at $4.7 billion. While 96% of Canadians believe that clean water should be guaranteed as a human right, rallying public support has been difficult.

Evidence-based ideas for creating an effective advocacy campaign:

Mount Royal conf
Professors Melanie O’Gorman, Katherine Starzyk and Aimée Craft.
  • Crafting culturally grounded advocacy messages requires understanding Indigenous values. Anishinaabe law teaches that water has a spirit, we do not own water, water is life, water can heal, women are responsible for water, we must respect the water, water can suffer and water needs a voice. (Watch a video of University of Manitoba Prof. Aimée Craft and Anishinaabe knowledge keepers.)
  • Campaign messages that frame drinking water as a human right or evoke community connection may help increase public support for government action. Emphasizing the suffering of babies, children, and expectant mothers as a result of inadequate water services may also be an effective public advocacy strategy. (Watch a short video of psychology professor Dr. Katherine Starzyk explaining some of her research results or read her conference abstract.)
  • New findings by economist Dr. Melanie O’Gorman that might help demonstrate human suffering:
    • First Nation residents with proper sanitation are 38 per cent more likely to report that they are in good health than those without.
    • In one First Nation, two-thirds of people surveyed run out of water at home.
  • Providing concrete suggestions and challenging stereotypes are among potential ways to overcome barriers preventing non-Indigenous Canadians from taking action, according to Dr. Laura Funk.
  • Advocacy can involve public education on legal obligations (slides) and, in some cases, legal action. Legal strategies (video by Prof. Karen Busby) that rely on international law and section 36 of the Canadian constitution look the most promising so far.
  • PhotoVoice can help empower community members to identify water and wastewater problems and solutions.

Follow the links above for details on the team’s research findings.

Research partners


This project was led by Centre for Human Rights Research founder Karen Busby. Partners include the Assembly of Manitoba ChiefsManitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the Public Interest Law Centre, the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources and Amnesty International Canada.

This project was financially supported by a 2013-16 Partnership Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, partner organizations and the Manitoba Law Foundation through the Legal Research Institute.

See information on other projects by the University of Manitoba’s water rights research consortium.