'Inertia and incompetence': Manitoba First Nation launches proposed class action over water advisories


A legal challenge filed in Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench could cost the federal government billions, if it is proven the government has violated the Charter rights of a large class of First Nations people for decades by failing to provide them with safe drinking water.

A proposed class-action lawsuit was filed on Nov. 20 by Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence on her own behalf and on behalf of her northern Manitoba First Nation. The suit alleges the First Nation has spent decades without access to clean drinking water and seeks damages.

Tataskweyak has been under an official long-term boil water advisory since 2017.

The lawsuit alleges that the federal government received consistent advice for decades that it was depriving First Nations of adequate access to clean drinking water, but did not act.  

"Although Canada was advised of the devastating human consequences of these failures, its response to this human catastrophe was — and continues to be — a toxic mixture of inertia and incompetence," the lawsuit says.

"It conducted its affairs with wanton and callous disregard for [the] interests, safety and well-being" of people living under the advisories, the suit says.

If it is certified as a class action, the suit will aim to bring together a class made up of any member of a band whose land was subject to a water advisory that lasted at least one year, at any point from Nov. 8, 1995, until the present.

'A long-standing problem'

Michael Rosenberg, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault and the lead lawyer in the suit, says it's not clear yet how many individuals would make up the class.

Beyond the 57 reserves currently under long-term water advisories, there are many examples of communities, such as Pauingassi or Hollow Water First Nation, that were under advisories for years before they were lifted.

"It would be a significant number. This is a long-standing problem," Rosenberg said.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation, about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is one of two First Nations in Manitoba currently under long-term boil water advisories, along with Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation in northwestern Manitoba.

Tataskweyak "was a community that wanted to take a leadership role," as the lead plaintiff in the suit, Rosenberg said.

"In terms of the geography of this crisis, there has been a significant instance of long-term drinking water advisories in Manitoba."