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Water Today Title May 30, 2024

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Update 2020/7/11
First Nations Water


By Gillian Ward

History was made in Atlantic Canada in June, as the first Framework Agreement beginning the formal transfer of authority and liability for water and wastewater from the federal government to First Nations control was signed.

In an emailed statement to WaterToday, Canada’s Indigenous Services Ministry spokesperson Vanessa Adams provided the federal government perspective on the transfer of authority over water services to First Nations control.

“Systemic racism has contributed to long-standing social and economic inequities among Indigenous communities. Resulting public health outcomes have included lack of access to clean water, to which Indigenous communities are unfortunately disproportionately affected. Closing the gap between social determinants of health among non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples is a tall task, but one that we must undertake not only as a federal government, but also on a provincial and territorial level.”

Going back in the archives, Canada and First Nations leaders worked together to create an expert panel in 2006 under the leadership of the late Grand Chief Stan Louttit. The task of the expert panel was to consider options for development of a “Regulatory Framework to Ensure Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities”.

The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act followed in 2013, laying out enforceable regulations for water and wastewater, but was not adopted into law.

With the Framework Agreement signed in the unceded territories of the Mi’kmaq, the government of Canada via ISC spokesperson Adams says,

“We remain steadfast to ensure everyone in Canada have access to safe, clean, and reliable drinking water, and recognize that much work remains ahead of us to improve access to clean water on-reserve. Our Government is working with First Nation leaders, communities, and organizations to co-develop long term solutions to ensure clean drinking water for all communities.

The First Nations Water Authority is a perfect example of this. Through the First Nations Clean Water Initiative, the Atlantic Policy Congress, interested First Nations and Indigenous Services Canada explored the feasibility of transferring control of water and wastewater professionally managed and operated to the First Nations Water Authority.”

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority, (AFNWA) is part of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs, established in 2018. Executive Director of the AFNWA John Paul has a close, personal and long-term association with water management issues in his home community, Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia.

Mr. Paul told WaterToday that the first task on his desk the day he started working for Membertou concerned a dispute over water.

“I have personally been involved in this work since the federal expert panel on water was done by the federal government. I have worked with our Chiefs and our communities toward the transfer of authority since this date and have always had the goal to ensure the provision of safe drinking water and safe disposal of wastewater,” says Paul.

Mr. Paul explains that in his worldview, water is sacred, respected as fundamental to life. As such, water and wastewater treatment and management by the First Nations via AFNWA will differ from the way it has been managed by federal regulators.

Best Practises, Consistent Standards, for the Sake of Water Itself. Mr. Paul explains, “Our control allows our own people to make the important decisions to provide water and waste water services to all communities in a caring and safe manner inclusive of our own values and principles.”

Water safety is a matter of extreme consequences. Twenty years ago, the town of Walkerton in Ontario experienced the loss of six people and illness of half the town’s population. A cryptosporidium outbreak in North Battleford, SK the following year saw thousands fall ill, many of whom still experience long-term poor health effects.

Contributing factors cited in the inquiry reports following these public health disasters included staff errors, communication breakdown between management and staff, poor record keeping and less frequent inspections. Since that time, Canadian guidelines for safe drinking water have been established, with provincial and territorial drinking water legislation for each jurisdiction, regularly scheduled inspections, standardized training and certification for water technicians. Universities and private industry have since developed advanced technologies for water treatment and on-site, rapid pathogen detection.

Water and wastewater management in First Nations communities has been a single window, federal responsibility, under which 61 long term drinking water advisories are still in effect. Now that the authority for water is moving into the hands of regional First Nations managers, optimism for better outcomes is rising. People with direct ties to the communities are naturally accountable for water outcomes, a positive step for clean water as long as resources are available for the new water authorities to do this work.

Mr. Paul says of the organization under his direction, “I also want to ensure there is adequate funding to provide safe quality water in all communities.”

An Assembly of First Nations (AFN) technical bulletin dated July 2018 stated concerns about the liability to be imposed upon First Nations with the transfer of authority from the federal government, with no assurance of resources to undertake the work.

Mr. Paul explained that despite concerns about First Nations accepting the liability to deliver clean water without a solid assurance of long-term funding, the transfer of authority had to happen. The time horizon for this process has to be long term, “at least twenty-five years of committed funds”, Paul says, as the planning horizon is long term, seven generations.

For AFNWA, the primary consideration is support, buy-in from the communities. Water and wastewater systems under AFNWA management will be evaluated by a consistent standard, where the goal is to meet and maintain the standard.

WaterToday inquired for specifics on the way systemic racism manifests itself in water and wastewater management. A Chief who wished to remain unnamed explained that the federal government tends to treat all First Nations as the same.

"We are not the same. Those days are behind us, where funds were misappropriated. We would not redirect funds intended for water to some other use. Its a matter of safety."

Our source went on to say that regulations were carried out by federal management regime to cause unnecessarily frustrating setbacks for the communities. As an example, a simple matter of a technician’s certification expiring would result in immediate loss of funding for the water treatment plant, even if the water quality parameters were met.

With Covid-19, concerns for these valuable skilled technicians’ health became an issue impacting community water delivery. If the only certified water tech in the community was unable to come to work due to self-isolation or quarantine for Covid-19, funding would be withdrawn again, even if the water was meeting quality standards..

Under First Nations management, details like this could change. Communities could be given time to address and resolve their specific issue, and the plant could continue to operate with funding as long as water samples are meeting the established standards for quality.

The AFNWA Director Paul addressed the matter of procurement for water and wastewater projects, indicating that under regional FIrst Nation authority, priorities and values will likely change the way contracts are awarded.

Where the federal procurement process has in the past awarded contracts to the lowest bidder, the AFNWA will consider contracts and employment benefits accrue to qualified companies within the First Nations in the Atlantic first.

Canada’s Indigenous Services spokesperson Adams concludes, “The Framework Agreement signed last week represents a significant milestone, an important step towards the full autonomous First Nations-lead operation of water and waste water services for 15 communities, serving approximately 4,500 homes and businesses, more than half of the First Nations on-reserve population in Atlantic Canada.”

As First Nations across Canada begin to take over the authority for water and wastewater management and delivery, WaterToday will be there, covering and reporting the changes.



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