How to bring clean water to more Ontario reserves

Date: May 20, 2016 

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Original article by Chantal Braganza in TVO Shared Values.

Barry Strachan wants to see the water program he helped create become redundant.

The Safe Water Project is entering its second year. It has helped three reserves eliminate their boil water advisories and set two others on the path to doing so. While funding ran out in March, the communities have continued to pay for the project and its operators hope the government will expand it to 14 other reserves. Eventually, Strachan hopes, the reserves will be able to sustain their own clean drinking water operations.

The Safe Water Project, a joint program between Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) Council of northern Ontario chiefs and the Keewaytinook Centre in Dryden, has provided mobile water testing equipment to five of KO’s member reserve communities since April 2015. In that time the program has also trained eight drinking water operators, many of them young adults.

Participating communities such as Poplar Hill, Fort Severn and Deer Lake First Nations, for example, had previously spent up to 1,000-day stretches on boil water advisories at a time, and since have effectively eliminated them for the duration of the program’s pilot year. North Spirit Lake First Nation, which CBC reports having been under one of Canada’s longest boil-water advisories at 14 years, expects to have its own lifted once their drinking water operator-in-training is certified.

“Even though we didn’t have approved funding, [the community leaders] indicated to me that they wanted the service to continue,” says Strachan, director of both KO Council’s public works program and The Safe Water Project. “We’ve continued to supply it even though we don’t have funding; we’ve been using surplus public works funding to pay for this.”

Strachan and the project’s partners recently submitted an application to renew federal funding for The Safe Water Project under a two-tiered plan: the first to have its original five KO communities’ programs renewed, and also to expand the training and equipment program to 14 other reserve communities. Those communities, represented by Independent First Nations Alliance, Shibogama First Nations Council and Windigo First Nations Council, spread across the majority of northeast and northwestern Ontario.

The program works because it focuses on building human capacity to operate and maintain the already-existing water treatment infrastructure in a number of northern Ontario reserves. For a number of aboriginal communities that have experienced drinking water advisories there is a gap between how long it takes for consistent water testing and the results, because samples must be sent to off-site locations for analysis.  With the addition of locally employed, trained and certified water treatment operators and mobile testing equipment that can send results to a central location, issues such as botched samples or adverse outcomes can be addressed more quickly.

“There is ownership of these programs at the community level,” says Strachan. “Everything prior to this has been imposed. We now have turned that corner, and the communities are owning what we’re doing and taking responsibility to ensure that what we’re suggesting is implemented.”

The program has broad appeal — boil water advisories are common on reserves throughout Canada. Isabella Tatar, CEO of CIITO Strategies, which has been working with the Safe Water Project, says the project has received inquiries from western provinces about the structure of the program. “There’s some interest in different parts of the country about how this model came about, what it does and why it’s been so effective in such a short period of time. We’ve met with reps of parliament from different ridings.”

Initial federal funding for the project’s first five communities totaled $1.4 million, which covered equipment, training and operations costs. Continuing the program in the KO communities will require about $750,000 of funding, says Strachan. It would cost an additional $4.2 million to expand to 14 more reserves.

While a response on the funding application isn’t expected for a couple of weeks, Strachan and Tatar are confident the proposal will be well-received in light of the recent federal budget’s proposal to increase funding for water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nations communities to $1.8 billion over the next five years.

“I want to see the Safe Water Program become redundant,” says Strachan. “I want to see us in a position in each First Nation where they can sustain their own operation without the networks we’re creating right now. I think it’s important that we maintain that as a goal. A lot of imposed solutions never had that as a goal: they were sustaining unto themselves.”