Water Management in Keewaytinook Okimakanak Communities

Early Investments

Like many First Nations, the communities of Keewaytinook Okimakanak have only had modern water treatment and distribution infrastructure since the late 1990s. 1997 marked the beginning of a series of investments from the federal department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) that aimed to establish water and wastewater treatment facilities in Keewaytinook Okimakanak communities. By 1999, new water and wastewater treatment facilities, complete with distribution and collection networks, had been built in each community.


While the infrastructure investments helped Keewaytinook Okimakanak communities treat their water and wastewater, the federal funding did not prioritize a crucial element of water management and community self-sufficiency: on-site operator certification and training.

In response to this gap, the Chiefs of Keewaytinook Okimakanak directed their officials to develop provincially approved training programs to build capacity in their communities, as well as to offer courses to northern Ontario municipalities. These training programs eventually became centralized in a state-of-the-art facility completed in 2004: the Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence in Dryden, ON.

From Safe Water Operations Program to the Safe Water Project
With First Nations across Canada facing significant challenges to accessing safe drinking water, INAC established the Safe Water Operations Program (SWOP) in 2008. The program, which was implemented in five of Keewaytinook Okimakanak’s communities, provided funding for First Nations to hire third party agencies to address ongoing water and wastewater issues. For example, if a community operator was having difficulty maintaining chlorine levels in treated water (a chemical process routinely used to kill bacteria), that community could access SWOP funding to hire a certified operator from an agency to address the problem.

INAC ended the SWOP in March of 2015. In response, the Chiefs of Keewaytinook Okimakanak wanted to resolve the ongoing drinking water challenges faced by their communities and directed the Public Works Department of Keewaytinook Okimakanak to find a solution.

Lessons Learned from SWOP
In designing the Safe Water Project, Keewaytinook Okimakanak noted that after eight years of effort and $5 million of investments in its communities through SWOP, only one of its 14 operators had been level-certified. As well, its communities continued to experience drinking water advisories to varying degrees.

In addition, SWOP did not invest directly in communities’ capacity to manage their water systems. Instead, funding went to third parties whose employees frequently had no prior relationship with or accountability to First Nations. These third parties were also given no formal authority over local operators.

What Made the Difference?
Building lasting and sustainable water management capacity in First Nations is a complex process, but it starts with investing as directly as possible at the community level. The centralized support the Safe Water Project offers, in the form of certified operators at the Centre of Excellence, is seen as a short-term mechanism for participating communities. In the long-term, the Safe Water Project envisions First Nations being self-sufficient with respect to the management of their water systems.

In order to achieve this self-sufficiency, the Safe Water Project offers local operators a range of training programs that recognize and are adaptable to the unique challenges faced by each community.

One example is the level of formal education required for local water operators. To be fully certified, operators must be high school graduates or obtain a Grade 12 Equivalency (GED). Many of the operators in the communities of Keewaytinook Okimakanak did not have a diploma, and had no resources under the SWOP to get a GED. In response to this gap, the Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence developed a GED preparation course so that operators could obtain the credentials they need to move on to training programs.

The Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence, as the training aspect of the Safe Water Project, takes into account these and other challenges in the way it develops and teaches its programs.

Water Developments in Canada
1960s – 70s
The federal government introduces policies intended to manage funding and services – including water and wastewater – on reserve. Funding and programs related to drinking water continue to be based on these policies.

An assessment done by INAC/Health Canada, based on limited data, reveals that 25% of on-reserve water systems pose a threat to the residents they serve.

The federal government spends $1.9 billion on First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure and services.

Another assessment, based on site inspections of all First Nation water systems, reveals that 75% of systems pose a significant risk to the quality and/or safety of drinking water.

The federal government commits $600 million in additional funding for water and wastewater services over five years as part of the First Nations Water Management Strategy.

The Kelowna Accord is reached between federal/provincial/territorial governments and Aboriginal leaders. The Accord pledges $5.1 billion to improving the socio-economic conditions and access to water for Aboriginal people. The subsequent federal government cancels the Accord in 2006.

The federal government announces the Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nation Communities.

INAC initiates the first phase of a consultation process leading to the development of a regulatory regime for water and wastewater on-reserve.

In its budget, the federal government commits $330 million over two years for safe drinking water in First Nations communities. Harry Swain, Chair of the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, says that the funding is not enough to ensure safe drinking water in all First Nations communities.