The federal government has announced $4 million to expand a pilot program that ended unsafe drinking water advisories on three First Nations by training young Indigenous people to operate water treatment plants in their communities.
With an initial investment under the Conservative government of only $385,000 per year plus one-time expenses for equipment, the program first developed by First Nation chiefs is a cheap solution to a problem that has plagued Indigenous reserves across the country for decades. While Canada is home to seven percent of the world's renewable fresh water, many First Nations can't drink the water that comes out of their taps.
The funding through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada will expand the Safe Water Project to 14 additional Ontario reserves, adding to the four reserves where it is already in place. With the funding, the government is hoping to make a dent in the 132 unsafe drinking water advisories in place right now on 89 First Nations, excluding British Columbia.
During last year's election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised at a VICE town hall that he would end drinking water advisories across the country within five years.
But recently in a VICE Canada documentary that brought him to Shoal Lake 40, a reserve that has suffered a boil water advisory for two decades, Trudeau backtracked somewhat on that vow, saying, "If I say we're going to eliminate all boil water advisories in five years, and it ends up taking five-and-a-half years, or six years, I think I'll be okay with that. And if it ends up taking 20 years, then I did break my promise."
"People say, 'Oh, it will cost this much,'" he told us. "No, you don't get to say that. This is Canada. We are a country wealthy enough to do this and to do it right. Because we have to. Not because we want to or because we promised to. Because it needs to be done."
A 2011 government report found it would cost $5 billion over 10 years to upgrade water and sewage infrastructure on reserves, with $1.2 billion needed immediately to get reserves up to minimum standards. The Liberals have earmarked $1.8 billion over five years for water infrastructure, with $618 million of that spending coming in the first two years of their four-year mandate.
Barry Strachan, the public works manager for the First Nations where the Safe Water Project launched, told VICE News earlier this year, "If they want to solve their drinking water advisory problem in First Nations within five years they'd better take a really hard look at what we're doing and replicate it elsewhere, as well as continuing to support us."
"If you replicate it tribal council by tribal council, you can expect similar results," he added.
The program has also created a small number of job opportunities for Indigenous youth on isolated reserves that suffer from low economic success and high suicide rates. Water treatment plant operator Nico Suggashie told VICE News he was feeling depressed and couldn't find a job before the project came to his reserve, Poplar Hill First Nation. But after he was trained and hired, he prevented a water advisory by re-testing a false positive sample.
"They drink it unboiled now," he said proudly of people on his reserve, who now trust the water that comes from their taps.
So far, the Safe Water Project has begun to fix what Strachan says was a missed opportunity by the Liberal government in the late 1990s, when the government funded and built water treatment plants on some reserves near Dryden, Ontario, but didn't train anyone to run them.
While advocates of the program, including Strachan, have lobbied the government for much of the last year to replicate it on other reserves, it remains to be seen whether the model of training treatment plant operators and providing them with the right equipment can be wholly transplanted into other communities, some of which, including Shoal Lake 40, do not have water treatment plants at all.
VICE News asked INAC how many unsafe drinking water advisories the department has solved since coming into power nearly a year ago, but the ministry did not respond.
In July 2015, there were a total of 133 water advisories on 93 reserves across the country. Today there are 132 advisories on 89 reserves — a number that fluctuates day to day.
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