No One Answer For FN Water

Much has been written about why First Nations still don’t have clean drinking water in this modern age.
The answer is, that it’s a complex, engineering and social issues that is further challenged by location and logistics. In fact, many non FN communities have boil water advisories as well. Check out the stats.
It’s not all about money.

In this piece Principle Curator Ian Harvey explores some of those issues and reveal some of the hurdles which don’t make the headlines in mainstream media. Reality may surprise you.

The $2 billion battle to end boil advisories on First Nation reserves is progressing but it’s painfully slow and ignores long term issues, say those at the front lines.

In 2015 the Liberal government pledged end all boil water advisories on FN reserves by 2021 and thus far 88 long term drinking water advisories have been lifted since November of that year.

However, as of July 2020, only 61 long term advisories remain on the 3,100 reserves in Canada involving more than 631 FNs and bands. Check out the stats.

While the technology and engineering to treat water is fairly common and widely available, all stakeholders agree, the root cases of contaminated water are complex and it’s not something which can be quickly solved simply by throwing more money at it.
“They have made some improvements but it would be a delightful surprise if they complete it all by 2021,” says Prof. Lalita Bharadwaj, toxicologist and associate professor of public health at the University of Saskatchewan, who has worked with FN for more than 20 years on drinking water issues. “The problem is for that the water treatment lifecycle ends with construction and still places the onus on the chief and council to maintain and manage it.”

The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates it will take another $3.2 billion to end boil-water advisories on reserves, including funding to upgrade existing water treatment systems to meet standards and replace those systems which have reached their end of lifecycle.

The issues are also well known: logistics, access, standards, skills shortages, operations and maintenance funding.
But there’s no panacea and no one-size fits all solution because each reserve with a water issue is unique both in the cause of the contamination, their size, location and access to power to run a water treatment module.
“It’s a serious issue and more concentrated efforts are required by many parties if the Federal Government is going to seriously deal with the boil water issues of the FN Communities,” says Kevin L. Martin, owner and president of First Nations Engineering Services Ltd. in Ohsweken, near Brantford, Ontario, which installs and maintains water treatment equipment in Ontario and Alberta reserves. “They are making progress, albeit slowly.” 
FNESL general manager Craig Baker, with 30 years experience as a engineer installing water systems, agrees.

“There’s no silver bullet to solve this,” he says. “Infrastructure never moves fast.”

Before the engineering, before the technology there’s a lot of work in getting a reserve on the road to clean water at the outset which has to be done, he says, including land use planning and planning for the infrastructure.
Often the FN has no water standards in place so the process stalls until something is decided on, though recently most have been adopting the relevant provincial standard to clear that hurdle.
“Funding for FN capital budgets were cut 40 per cent in the Harper government’s last four years,” he says. Reserves – where populations are growing faster than the Canadian average – ended up being squeezed when operations budgets for water processing were also underfunded. “Explain to me how that formula would ever create sustainable infrastructure.”

While the promises of the new government were tantalizing, he says, the reality was the same slow bureaucratic process remained in place.

“The point is to slow it down, to decelerate spending,” he says. “The good news is that the budget is back to where it was before cut.”

The latent issue is in the operations and management of systems after installation where they are funded at about 40 per cent of cost, he says, with the expectation that FN will come up with the rest.

“The problem then is that many of these communities have no access to money,” he says.

Even then, he says, there are other issues such as population growth which increases demand and the ongoing struggle to train and retain water treatment technicians.

“The raw water characteristics are different so every well is different and affects the chemistry and process design,” Baker says.

Prof. Bharadwaj says compounding the challenges of maintenance is that lot of systems are obsolete almost as soon as they are installed which means finding parts becomes an issue. That in turn is further complicated by the location of some remote reserves where getting parts in is a challenge, she adds.

“They can’t find parts and so they make their own sometimes,” she says, adding having a skilled technician on hand to make repairs is also an issue. “Even having someone they can talk to is difficult.”

The myth, of course, is that Canada has an infinite supply of pristine water in lakes and river but few consider it may be unfit because of organic contamination such as bacteria or in some cases from industrial contamination such as mining or pulp and paper processing.

Things are changing, nonetheless, Baker says, with more licensed operators being trained and available through a hub-system which pays for travel and dispatches them to remote reserves which don’t have a technician on site.

This issue will never completely disappear, Baker says, because it’s like a whack-a-mole game. As new systems go in, old ones break down or can’t meet demand and are running 24/7 with predictable stress failures or it’s discovered they were improperly installed or they’ve reached their end of life cycle.

“We’re just kicking problems down the road,” he says. “Why does Indigenous Services Canada not have operations and maintenance in their budget? Why buy all these shiny new toys with no budget? Because its for indigenous people.”

On the positive, however, some reserves are exemplary, he says, pointing to Whitefish River FN on Manatoulin Island in northern Ontario.

“The chief is an engineer, he grasped the concept of community planning and water treatment,” says Baker adding the chief initially had to struggle with a nine-year-old treatment system which was failing and required the plant, the standpipe and source to be relocated and re-done because of “poor initial design standards and criteria.”

The key, he says, is to look more seriously at operations and maintenance budgets because too many remote reserves have no revenues streams.

FN too should not be afraid of regulation of water systems either he says.

“The engineering technology is there, but it’s going up against the bureaucracy to get project through I don’t think people get that part of it,” he says.

Moving forward, says Prof. Bharadwaj, it is going to be important for remote reserves especially to be able to network through a knowledge hub and get real-time support from other FN technicians who have experienced in their same challenges.

Funding alone isn’t always the right approach, she adds, and it’s just as important to work with the FN and respect their autonomy and where they are drawing their water from and how sustainable that source is.

Then there’s the issue of access for construction, she adds, pointing to the experience of the Neskantaga, a fly-in Ojibway community, some 433 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. which has been under a boil water advisory since 1995.

While a contractor was engaged at $5 million to install a plant, access issues have caused delays and price increases. First it was getting a cement mixer to the reserve which had to be flown in piece by piece, then it was because winter closed in.

“And some of these locations only have generators for power,” she says. “It’s complex.”

The situation of drinking water may not revolve around racism but there were a series of racist decisions over the years with the residential school, the Indian Act which paved the way for the current malaise, she says.

Funding alone isn’t always the right approach, she adds, and it’s just as important to work with the FN and respect their autonomy and where they are drawing their water from and how sustainable that source is.

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