To understand the chronic problems and bureaucratic nightmare that underpin the First Nations drinking water crisis, look to Rocky Bay First Nation, in northern Ontario, a community that finally has clean water, but waited years to get it.
The Ojibway community got a water treatment plant in 2008 that has since kept falling into disrepair.
“Once we fixed one thing, something else would go,” said Corey Lynch, one of the water operators.
It was a long process to request money for repairs from the Chief and Council — they have a small operating budget for the year, and often they would run out of money. He said the band council would have to either move funds from another program or ask Indigenous Affairs for more money.
They also had issues retaining water operators — one left for another job, one was laid off due to personal issues — so for a while it was only one guy running the whole plant when they actually need a minimum of two people.
It might sound obvious, but water operators in communities that finally have clean water point to basic construction, upgrades, and repairs of their water systems as the solution. The problem is it can take years to get approvals and funding from Indigenous Affairs to build, upgrade, and repair those water systems. Communities also struggle to retain water plant operators, who often make tiny salaries, making them likely to leave for higher paying jobs.
Rocky Bay’s story speaks to a vicious cycle in which water systems fall into disrepair, or need upgrades to service growing populations, but the bureaucratic system that responds to those needs moves so slowly that the resulting drinking water advisories drag on for years.
Why does it take so long?
Look at what a municipality anywhere else in the country does if their water plant needs a repair. They assess the problem, issue a request for proposals, and choose a company to complete the project within a given budget. There is no third party that holds the purse strings — the municipal government has the money and decides how to spend it. And they have enforceable regulations for drinking water.
While federal guidelines on First Nations drinking water might suggest First Nations are in charge of their own water, in fact, the opposite is true. The system for solving water advisories is run from the top down by the federal government, which holds the wallet and has its authority granted by the Indian Act.
And the process it has set out is insanely complex.
If a First Nation wants a water plant, the band council first has to come up with an extremely detailed feasibility study taking into account numerous laws and protocols (seriously, try reading them), which they send to Indigenous Affairs for approval. The back-and-forth for approval itself can take years. If Indigenous Affairs approves it, the community can move onto crafting a design for the plant, which Indigenous Affairs also has to approve. Only when Indigenous Affairs is on board with the design will they provide up to 100 percent of the funding for the project — not necessarily the entire funds needed. If it provides 80 percent of the money, the community needs to come up with the other 20 percent on its own.
Water operators in remote First Nations have told VICE News this means the community will often choose the lowest bidder in an effort to save money. The companies that offer the lowest bids aren’t always reliable, they say, and sometimes their designs are faulty, the systems leak, or they won’t return to remote reserves to make repairs.
Even though it’s the federal government that green lights all pertinent aspects of this process, the responsibility for testing the water — and reporting that to Health Canada — falls on the First Nation. Then it’s Health Canada that decides if a water advisory is in order. Sometimes the water operators in these communities aren’t properly trained, so accurate water testing is a problem, and they often have low salaries, so it’s hard to retain them.
Recently Corey Lynch, of Rocky Bay First Nation, was hired on full time as a second water operator on a miniscule wage of $15 an hour, which he says amounts to about $25,000 a year. With his help, and when the next fiscal year began and released more funds, they were able to make the repairs that allowed the water advisory to be lifted.
Indigenous Affairs confirmed the long term advisory in Rocky Bay first set in 2010 was lifted in 2016 “after the First Nation replaced equipment using operations and maintenance funding provided by the department.”
New Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott elaborated to VICE News on changes to the faulty system. The government now has a better tracking system, including communities that could slip back onto water advisories. They also have implemented long-term funding for projects; rather than one or two years, funding can now span up to five years. And the government has made $733 million in investments in 348 water projects. But Philpott also pointed to First Nations as the ones who have the capacity to solve their own water issues.
Some communities, frustrated with Indigenous Affairs, have done that already. Black Tickle, an Inuit-Metis community in Labrador, has started its own successful rainwater collection program. Potlotek in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is drilling wells to find a new source of water. And in one of the most promising projects, which Indigenous Affairs has invested in, the Safe Water Project trains and hires First Nations young people to operate water treatment plants, which has also given a boost to their mental health. In its first year on a shoestring budget, they solved three water advisories.
As this series has unfolded, similar themes have emerged. We heard that First Nations need more investment by government in water infrastructure, and operator training and salaries, especially in the poorest communities. The system to deliver that funding also needs to be more efficient — treat the issue like the emergency that it is. They also contend that they need enforceable regulations on drinking water, with clear accountability.
First Nations also recognize that they need to keep building their own capacity to solve the crisis, developing their own strengths and taking it upon themselves.
Both sides agree that colonial structures that create a paternal relationship between the federal government and First Nations must be removed.
And, of course, the will of government to make these changes.