Helping to solve the First Nations water crisis through collaboration

There are dozens of boil-water advisories on reserves across the country. Can one research team’s innovative approach help fix that?
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on October 24, 2018
boiling water on a stove
The federal government committed $1.8 billion in the 2016 budget to end long-term boil-water advisories. (iStock.com/jordieasy)

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HAMILTON — The square of glass Ravi Selvaganapathy is holding has three smears of ink and a scribble of pencil on it. It cost pennies to make. And it could help solve the drinking-water crisis on First Nations reserves.

The chlorine sensor is easy to produce, and, with the addition of a microprocessor, it would allow people to test their own water for the chemical element — a good indicator of whether it is treated and safe to drink.

“People from the community could be trained to do analytical measurements on water quality so that if another community member wants the water quality tested, they could do that testing internally rather than having to send it out,” says Selvaganapathy, a professor of biomicrofluidics in McMaster University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “From a trust perspective, that information, even though it may be the same information, is much more valued when it comes from within the community, compared to coming from outside.”

The sensor is one piece of a massive, sprawling, and shifting project — “Co-creating of Indigenous Water Quality Tools” — supervised by Dawn Martin-Hill, the Paul R. MacPherson Chair in Indigenous Studies at McMaster University. The mandate is to create sensors, provide training, and build tools that will allow First Nations people to monitor the quality and safety of their drinking water. Selvaganapathy, for example, is looking not just at drinking-water testing but also at environmental monitoring involving sensors that could be deployed on waterways and then feed information to an app that would deliver information to users in Indigenous languages.

The name may sound distinctly scholarly, but the project itself challenges academic orthodoxy. The team — which also includes Selvaganapathy, biologist Patricia Chow-Fraser, pediatric-health expert Constantine Samaan, and clinical psychologist Christine Wekerle — is partnering with Six Nations, near Brantford, and Lubicon Lake First Nation, in northwestern Alberta. Key to the initiative is co-creation: the research team will take its cues from the Indigenous communities it’s working with.

Research and dialogue with the two communities and their experts and elders have informed the direction of the project. Funded through a $950,000 research grant from the Global Water Futures project and launched in September 2017, it’s still in its nascent stages, but its collaborative approach has already produced results — such as Selvaganapathy’s cheap sensor, the addition of Wekerle to the team, and a focus on the connection between mental health and water issues — that will guide the work to come.

Drinking water on First Nations reserves has been an issue for decades. The federal government committed $1.8 billion in the 2016 budget to end long-term boil-water advisories — of which there are currently 70 across the country.

But the problems with drinking water differ depending on the reserve. Lubicon Lake, for example, is concerned about the effects of nearby oilsands development. And Six Nations struggles not with the treatment of water, but with its delivery. The reserve completed a $41 million water-treatment plant in 2014, but it doesn’t have the funding to run pipes from that plant to local residences. Instead, it allows people to pick water up from the facility for free.

When Martin-Hill and the team began engaging with the communities, they encountered a growing amount of what she calls “water anxiety.” Many on the two reserves have never had clean drinking water; youth, especially, are concerned that they never will.

“There's a sense of hopelessness now that I didn't see 15 years ago,” says Martin-Hill. “People don't understand with First Nations — your land is you. There's a saying: ‘We are the water; the water is us. We are the land; the land is us.’”

The flexible nature of the project has presented both institutional and scientific challenges.

“My whole life has been challenging in an academic environment,” says Martin-Hill. “We are the first generation of PhDs — there may have been one or two before. We've had to create Native Studies; we've had to work with the community; we've had to figure out how to do research not with a colonial narrative.”

In a typical water study, researchers randomly select wells for sampling. That random sample is considered representative of the community and allows scientists to draw conclusions about drinking water in the area.

Usually, Chow-Fraser would just be able to knock on doors to get samples — but in Six Nations, she was able to access only wells selected by the team’s community coordinator.

“My idea was to start the project by randomly sampling. To Western science, random sampling is a given — if you're going to do research, you need to do that,” says Chow-Fraser. “We were told, ‘No. That's not how you do it: this is a co-creation project. We tell you where to sample.’”

The difference is crucial. Random samples allow researchers to draw conclusions about large populations, whereas a selected sample has limitations: in this case, most of the samples likely came from people who know Martin-Hill or the project’s community coordinator.

But co-creation means working with the community and with its history. And although the data-gathering approach may have been somewhat unconventional, Chow-Fraser was able to sample wells and provide the community with information.

The project has funding for three years, and Martin-Hill is actively working to secure future grants for other initiatives, including ones involving “water anxiety” and mental health.

Consultation with Six Nations and Lubicon Lake First Nation will continue to shape the project as it goes forward. “In designing [a research project], you can't come in with your design — it won't work,” says Martin-Hill. “We might accommodate it if there's one piece we want, but you won't get the buy-in from community. When you get the community buy-in — when they say, ‘We wanted to do this; we just didn't know how’ — then they're excited because they own it. They will show up. They will engage.”

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