How one northern project speeds up access to clean water

By Chantal Braganza - Published on Nov 05, 2015
An Anishinaabe First Nation reserve in northwestern Ontario has spent up to 1,000 days on boil water advisories in the past decade.

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For most of his life Nico Suggashie, like many of his neighbours, just assumed his local tap water wasn’t safe to drink.

“I’d just avoid it,” he says.

His hometown of Poplar Hill, an Anishinaabe First Nation reserve community in northwestern Ontario, nearly 300 km north of Kenora, has spent extended stretches of time on boil water advisories: up to 1,000 days in the past decade, according to a recent CBC report.

But this wasn’t for a lack of clean water. Poplar Hill has a water system that includes a treatment plant, and a water delivery mix that includes piped water to some of its homes and tanks with water trucked in for others. An advisory could instead result from something as seemingly simple as water testing.

The lack of certified on-site testers, combined with the difficulty and expense involved in travelling to many Ontario First Nations reserves, contributes to lengthy boil water advisories in places like Poplar Hill. Typically after a sample is collected, it must be shipped offsite for analysis — a costly back-and-forth process that could take days. The time lapse could often mean the difference between knowing if a system’s water is clean and safe to drink right away, or if a problem needs to be immediately addressed.

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Instead, the Safe Water Project has been training people on reserves and equipping them to do on-site analysis for faster results. Now, as a drinking water operator trainee on the verge of completing his first level of certification, Suggashie tests water at Poplar Hill consistently, which means cases of botched samples are identified immediately and adverse results can be addressed quickly.

Suggashie is among the first cohort of the Safe Water Project, a pilot partnership program between the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Council of northern Ontario chiefs and the Keewaytinook Centre in Dryden, Ont. The program aims to fix the gap that exists when reserves have working water systems, but can’t test whether or not the water is safe to drink.

The initiative is, first and foremost, to address a longstanding gap between federal investment in northern reserve facilities that ramped up in the past two decades, and investment in the people needed to maintain those facilities, says Barry Strachan, director of public works at KO Council and the director of the Safe Water Project.

“In the late ‘90s there was a real push by the federal government to get these communities up to the 20th century standard for water, sewer and accessibility. We spent millions of dollars in capital upgrades of infrastructure, but we missed one important aspect in our zeal to get these things built: the community that the year before had nothing had now the full gamut of 20th century tech at their disposal, and was now their responsibility. We did not keep up with the human capacity for that upkeep.”

In addition to offering the training program Suggashie and his colleagues started at the beginning of this year, the Safe Water Project also employs two Class 3-certified water treatment specialists at the Keewaytinook Centre in Dryden who provide mobile support to each of the program participants, and mobile monitoring systems that allow the water treatment operators-in-training to send test results back to the centre in real-time.

The combination of all three allows KO Council reserves to maintain provincial drinking water standards, which is significant. Across the board, First Nations reserve water treatment is held to a federal standard says Gary Oja, an instructor at the Keewaytinook Centre and previous operations manager at the Ontario Clean Water Agency. “There’s the commitment by the northern [KO Council] chiefs to do the provincial standard, which is the higher of the two,” he says. “Federally, there’s no requirement for operators to either be licensed or certified.”

Strachan cautions, however, that the Safe Water Project isn’t a catch-all solution for water access — but for communities that already have the infrastructure in place; it is a necessary first step. “I would never claim that if we implemented this in every First Nation in Canada we’d solve all the problems. But we’d built a house with no foundation — that foundation being the people that have to maintain and sustain this operation.”

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canda’s funding for the pilot project, which began in April, is guaranteed through March 2016.

“We have no guarantee beyond that, although we continue to lobby so we’re not forgotten. I’m reasonably confident based on my discussions that they see the benefit of what we’re doing,” says Strachan.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, who visited the Keewaytinook Centre this past August to see the real-time monitoring in action, agrees. “Overall there’s an approach that’s required that just isn’t about the federal government saying, ‘Let’s create the Safe Drinking Water Act, and let’s bring the province on board and train people,’” he says.

“If Canada has never been in the business, constitutionally speaking, of providing safe drinking water, that’s the first problem,” says Day. “So where there’s a regulatory gap, and where those gaps exist, there’s going to be uncertainty and instability within that realm of policy.”

Suggashie, who just wrote his Class One certification exam last month and is awaiting the results, hopes to complete all four.

“Now that I’m more familiar with the system,” he says, “I’m surprised with how clean the water is, how it’s usually clean and safe to drink.”

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