Low pay for First Nations water operators is threatening drinking water

Water operators on some First Nations make $12 an hour.
October 12, 2018, 3:58pm

Water operators in First Nations communities are walking off the job due to pay that is barely over minimum wage, exposing a serious funding issue that is threatening safe drinking water.

Water operators are the unsung heroes who run water plants and test the water to ensure it’s safe to drink. If a community doesn’t have a water operator, they automatically fall back onto a drinking water advisory. That makes the issue of operator retention a serious threat not only to the health and safety of Indigenous communities, but also to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to end long term water advisories on reserve by March 2021.

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Pic Mobert, Ontario, was left scrambling when their only water operator had to leave the community due to a family emergency, and there was no one else to run the water plant.

In Rocky Bay, Ontario, water operators keep quitting. The only water operator almost walked off the job recently after an argument with the chief over pay. He makes $15.50 an hour.

In Nekaneet, Saskatchewan, Chief Alvin Francis said his primary water operator is protesting his low pay of $12 an hour by not going to the two plants often enough. As a result, Francis says Nekaneet’s water is on a 30-day probationary period.

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“I’m not asking for a whole lot, just a little bit more,” said Courtney Taypotat, Nekaneet’s main water operator. He says he is not protesting and is working as hard as ever. “The water is so important on First Nations that we should be paid a little bit better to keep the certified operators.”

Francis understands why his operators are upset. “They actually swear at me,” the chief said. “Meanwhile I take their concerns to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). That’s all I can do.”

Constance Lake, Ontario, has a new water plant that uses more power.

“Because we’re underfunded, we can’t offset the incurred costs from the power usage,” public works manager Lillian Sutherland told VICE News. Indigenous Services wouldn’t give them more money, so they had to cut one of their two water operators.

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Wages on reserve are untaxed, but even so First Nations say their water operator wages are not competitive with municipalities, and they require more money from ISC in order to increase that pay. Many operators move off reserve to work in municipalities.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott tells VICE News she is well aware of the issue. She said the government has a fiscal relationship with these nations and provides funding for water operators, but it is up to First Nation governance to set water operator pay.

“We have already increased our funding to communities,” Philpott said. “There are a number of mechanisms with which we support communities for funding for some of their public service jobs. There’s a pool of funding called band support funding which has been increased in the last couple of years, and I can get you details on other types of funding that goes to communities. It is not up to us to decide how much a community pays their water operator.”

In our fact check on the Liberal government’s water promise, we identified eight communities that said they had clean drinking water, but that they had trouble retaining water operators, putting their water at risk: Constance Lake, Mishkeegogamang, Pic Mobert, Rocky Bay, Nekaneet, Poundmaker, Frog Lake and Big Island Lake Cree Nation.

VICE News asked ISC for the amount of band support funding for each of those eight communities for the last two years. Band support funding is a grant that First Nations can distribute according to their individual needs. ISC would not give us those numbers, but the department said it had invested $38.4 million across the country for recruiting, training and retaining water operators, and $48 million over two years in band support funding “for First Nations in greatest need of support.”

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“ISC does not track the amount of funding spent directly on operator salaries,” a department spokesperson said in a statement to VICE News. “First Nations have the discretion to allocate their operations and maintenance funding to where they deem it is most needed. Funding for water operator salaries may come from operations and maintenance funding or other sources. For information regarding how a specific First Nation allocates the funding for water operator salaries, we would encourage you to speak with the First Nation directly.”

What water operators told us

Corey Lynch is the only water operator on call for emergencies in Rocky Bay after an operator left in April for a better paying job. Lynch almost walked off the job after arguing with the chief over pay.

“The pressure I’m feeling is I’m locked up here and I can’t leave,” he said. “They hired another placement who is helping me with the small stuff, a trainee.”

Lynch makes $15.50 an hour, untaxed.

He has two mouths to feed. “I just had a kid, and we’re expecting another one.”

“The water is so important on First Nations that we should be paid a little bit better to keep the certified operators.”

He is looking for another job. He said Sand Point, a neighbouring community, had a job opening for a labourer at a saw mill that paid $18.50 an hour.

In the two-and-a-half years he has worked at the plant, he counts three operators that left for better jobs, and one that was let go.

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“The chief said he was working on getting me a raise, but saying it and doing it are different things.” The new fiscal year was in April. “That time has come and gone.”

He said ISC could be paying more. “When you work on reserve it’s not taxed, but when you tally everything up it should be similar versus municipalities.”

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Lawrence, a water operator in Frog Lake, Alberta, says he doesn’t make enough, and doesn’t feel valued.

“For me, it’s not great pay, but it’s enough to pay the bills.”

He said he might make more in a municipality, but said after taxes it would probably work out to about the same.

“There’s not enough recognition for the work you do.”

Philpott told VICE News the differential between what water operators make on and off reserve depends on the province.

“There’s not enough recognition for the work you do,” Lawrence said. “That’s just part of the job.”

“A lot of responsibility and time goes into it, but no one can see it because you’re working alone.”

But he said he didn’t get into water treatment for the recognition; he got into it for the health of the kids and the next generation.

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Leonard Wavy, head water operator at Mishkeegogamang in Ontario, says there are very few people who want to be water operators. In the 15 years he’s been a water operator, he has seen six operators trained. None of the six are still there. “I’m the only one left.”

He says the wages in his community start at $15 with no certificate, and once operators are trained on their class 2 certification, the wage goes up to $25 an hour.

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“The only problem is liability issues, you’re on call 24/7 and you gotta keep your water safe,” he said.

“What screws up the students is the liability; you don’t want to take the risk.” But he adds, as long as they follow the rules, that isn’t an issue.

It took him one a half years to find his current trainee. He’s from the community, and Wavy thinks he will stick around.

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Nekaneet’s water operator Taypotat makes $12 an hour. He’s managing two water plants seven days a week, an hour or two a day, with no holidays.

He says he would make $20 an hour in a municipality, although those jobs do have additional duties.

He has asked for a raise, twice, but hasn’t had a wage increase in six years.

“We’re getting by, but that’s about it.”

He’s a single dad supporting a 10-year-old daughter. He hasn’t quit yet because the job allows him the flexibility to see his daughter. “If she needs dad to come into town, I can do that, so that I’m thankful for.”

“We’re getting by, but that’s about it,” he said.

Taypotat says he deserves a raise because drinking water is important. “Without an operator it’s an automatic boil water [advisory],” he said.

“They should increase the wages for water operators to keep the communities off boil water. Water is an important thing.”

What First Nations governance told us

Nekaneet Chief Francis says Indigenous Services Canada said they would increase their budget, but they didn’t. ISC would not give us the numbers that would show if that was true or not, saying we should ask chiefs directly.

“It’s wrong what they’re doing to us,” Francis said.

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“Our budget has been the same since 1988. The real world gets a rate of inflation. How do you think our First Nations people feel when nothing’s changed since 1988?”

“To me it’s disgusting that we can’t find a way to get the federal government to understand we’re just going into debt because our increases are not keeping up with inflation.”

“Here’s my honest opinion of ISC,” he continued. “There’s way too many filters. You look at a coffee filter, there are layers. There are too many layers of control as the money filters down to First Nations.”

“There are too many layers of control as the money filters down to First Nations.”

“They’re just going to leave one day,” he said of his water operators. “Twelve years of experience, someone’s going to take them. They’re probably looking around for a job right now.

“What can I do? I can’t do anything.”

One of the councillors from Poundmaker First Nation, who did not want his name used because he wanted to speak freely, said his community has struggled to retain water operators.

He said his community doesn’t get enough funding from ISC to keep them. Giving them a raise would encourage them to stay.

“They gotta get side jobs to make a living; cutting wood, hauling water, anything to offset it.”

When asked if he had anything to say to the Trudeau government, he said, “It wouldn’t be very nice, so I refuse comment.”

Then he continued: “They put so much emphasis on water, but then it’s not properly funded.”

‘Like raising a child’

Being a water operator is a lonely, thankless job, with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

Carvey Sandfly, water operator in Big Island Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, has worked in his community as a water operator for more than four years. “It’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly, that no one should.”

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Sandfly asked for a raise, and his band gave it to him. “I was extremely happy with that.”

Previously, the community had issues with water operators not doing the job properly. There are still issues with high staff turnover, Sandfly says. People are often hired and then leave.

“You should be paid properly for it, because the thing about it is, it’s a 24/7 job,” he said.

“It’s almost like raising a child, closely watching it. Sometimes it’s quite taxing, but I don’t know if I would have it any other way.”

“I was extremely lucky that my band said, this guy is extremely good, we’ve got to keep him on.”

He never knows when a water main might break, or if bacteria will show up in a sample. And he’s on call all the time.

He thinks the federal government should kick in more money for underpaid water operators in other communities, but says it’s also up to the band to pay operators properly.

“I was extremely lucky that my band said, this guy is extremely good, we’ve got to keep him on.”

Big Island Lake Cree Nation draws its water from an aquifer. There’s a high amount of calcium in the water, which makes it hard. Unlike other communities, the source water isn’t contaminated. ISC says a water advisory in his community was lifted earlier this year.

“Knock on wood,” he says, knocking on the wooden desk in his office at the water plant. “There haven’t been any issues.”

Sandfly is already thinking of ways to get the next generation interested in water, so they might want to be operators like him.

He wants to take school kids on a tour of the plant, or maybe start something on Facebook “to get them interested in taking over someday.”

Cover image by VICE Canada