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Water Today Title May 27, 2024

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First Nations Water

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WaterToday staff

Interview with Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno, part 2. The transciption below has been edited for clarity and length.

Diesel - Renewable Enery

WT - I was discussing a speech you had done in 2018 where you had talked about either running out of diesel or running out of money to buy diesel and I was hoping you could explain to our viewers how it comes to be that a community that totally relies on diesel runs out of diesel. I believe it was in February of that year.

Chief Yesno - Yes

WT - Can you tell me sort of how it happened and what the remedy needs to be?

Chief Yesno - I can give you background on our diesel generation. Of course the first diesel power that ever existed in our community was for the school house, builtin 1965 and opened in the fall of 1967, and the diesel unit, water and sewage was only for the school complex.

The community did not have electricity, water, and sewage services and that went on for several years. The first thing that was extended was the electricity in 1970 and it was at that time that we started operating our own diesel generation system. At that time you know the houses were on I think a 10 or 20 amp panel, and nowadays I think the standard is a 200 amp panel.

So there was not much use. It was a relatively new thing, light bulbs maybe a few other items but that has changed over the years obviously with all the tools, television, and so on. We always only had two channels; TV Ontario and CBC North but people did buy television sets from the Hudsonís Bay Company store. So as the community grew of course there was more use for electricity and so on.

The first water service that was built in the community was in late 70s but the policy at the time with Indian Affairs was to bring the water line to 1 meter from the house, and so we had this multimillion-dollar system, I think at that time it was about 5.7 million, but no one was connected because the houses at that time were not plumbed. You know - even though they were designed for like central heating and all of that stuff - basically the sink at that time was just a sink. There was no piping underneath it because there was nowhere for the water to go, so people used pails to use the sink, drained the water from the pail and hauled it outside. They were all using outhouses.

It took some time, the government's policy had to change because we didnít have money to make the connection three feet from the house or to plumb the houses, but over time that was done. On the sewage side that was much later, in the 80ís, finally the sewage plant had to be redesigned, because with the population growth it could not service the community. So while all this was happening our energy needs are increasing, because we are an independent power authority.

At one time there was about a dozen of those independent power authorities all throughout the North. What Indian Affairs did is they entered into a master service agreement with Ontario Hydro, for these systems to be operated by Ontario Hydro. First thing we did, of course we resisted that because we didnít see any change in service, and basically we just wanted to transfer the asset and the management of the power system from Ontario Hydro and we stayed like that for a number of years and operated our own system.

During that time what Ontario Hydro was able to do was convince the ratepayers in Ontario, I guess the Ontario Energy Board, to subsidize these diesel operations all throughout the north. There are road- access communities that have power lines that were also on diesel generation. But there are others, Armstrong is another one, where thereís no grid, but the power is generated by other transmission lines.

As our community grew you know we didnít expand our diesel generation in terms of the capacity and you know - and Iíve been involved since the 70s both as chief and other services in the community - and what I learned through that exercise is that because of the planning of the government and how they deploy resources and that, from the planning period, to the construction and actually lights-on is really a five year envelope.

So when you got a community growing at three percent which is our average right now, sometimes it's higher, you know we can never keep up with the governmentís allocation for spending which was capped at one time at two percent. So here we are, weíre already falling behind you know right from day one. In most cases all the infrastructure projects that weíve had, by the time theyíre built, whether it's water or sewer or electricity weíre already close to capacity. Of course, you know if we go back and try to project that were going to need an upgrade in three years, weíre not on the waiting list, no longer a priority.

But, I want to fast forward to the long term advisory that we have been on, today is day 7,199. During all that period because the key word here is boil, if we are burning wood for heat thatís okay, but youíre not going to burn wood in the summer time in the hotter weather. So we have to rely on electricity to boil our water, and I think to a degree a lot of people, particularly people with marginal health issues did obey that (BWA).

Well we have to pay for the cost of the electricity so that became a real problem. I remember during a time I was not chief and went back to the community, I remember an elder was on my council back in the 70ís and 80ís showed me a power bill and it was almost 800 dollars and heís on old age pension. I asked why, why is it like that. Well they put an electric furnace in, and I said you know, that person wasnít even relying on wood heat or even oil heat, they couldnít afford it. So during this phase I think what people found is that they couldnít afford to keep paying the bill, so the community had to subsidize the cost because people just couldnít pay any more power.

We had to find other means to try to pay for the cost. When you do that, when that happens youíre not setting aside any money for breakdowns. It got the that point we didnít have the operating reserve to fix the generator when it broke, or if there was an ice storm and the cross arms broke because of the weight of the ice on the wires, or someone ran into a hydro pole you know, all kinds of things like that, we didnít have a contingency budget.

So, then what happens is you start to run into arrears with the fuel supply. If youíre not paying on time what the fuel suppliers including the airlines will do is you have to pay a premium because they know youíre going to go into arrears. One company, First Nation-owned, made a lot of money off us during that period.

Another issue is that all the infrastructure that INAC builds is based on providing primarily to residents, health services and education. Anything else whether itís institutional or commercial they donít contribute to. But in the community, you canít ignore the band office where chief and council has to operate, the community hall where community meetings happen or the community store or Hudson Bay North West Company.

Those are also services, but they donít get subsidized, they pay the (full) cost of the electricity. Whatever the cost of the electricity theyíll pay that and it is the highest cost and guess what, thatís why our milk is 16 dollars, our dozen eggs are 5.25 or more, a loaf of bread is you know, 6 bucks. Because the operators, I mean the business has got to make money and its passed down to the individuals. The worst ones to suffer are fixed income people like old age pensioners, and then you get people that are disabled and so on. Theyíre the ones that are most vulnerable.

Then we have situations around housing and overcrowding, an 80-year old could be living in the same home with 2, 3 other families that are probably their grandchildren. Not their children because their children have moved on but their grandchildren and, in some cases, could be great grandchildren, so you can see the compounding issue that were trying to deal with.

We have looked at renewable energy, we have looked at bringing a power line in from the nearest sources and I think the first time we ever did that was probably the late 70s, early 80s. At that time we were a good 100 air miles from the closest power line and those power lines were not that great to begin with. For instance the power line that came to Pickle Lake was just a small line and for that line to be extended from Pickle Lake to Fort Hope, by the time we got it there they were already encountering outages because of the un-reliability of the power line. The next source was in Nakina, and again thatís basically a dead end. We couldnít look at Armstrong because Armstrong itself was on diesel generation so that was our problem.

We did look at a power line system; we did look at some run of river, and those fluctuate depending on water levels and so on, and again itís the distance from the community and the lines, the capital costs associated with that.

Lately we did try to look at the solar because that has changed quite a bit in the last few years But, but even now I think solar has probably one of the highest costs of generating electricity. We could look at that but we have to look at the growth of our community and the reliability of that source. So weíve kind of looked at all of those you know, the capital costs put into developing something like that is something we couldnít absorb ourselves, we would need some assistance to even look at that and we have looked at the cost benefit analysis as well you know.

For instance right now, our diesel generating system has been upgraded and over the next winter were going to get another gen set. Those sets of generators can switch gear in order to optimize fuel when the loads are low and so on, we should be good for about another decade. So that tells you that thereís nothing in the works in my community for a power line coming into the community for the next decade so we will be on diesel. We may look at alternative renewable energy but thereís a cost to that as well.

So weíve tried to look at all these different options and I think right now were just trying to manage the cost associated with that. Weíve got people coming out of the woodwork selling biomass, wind, solar and on and on. The way they do their financial projections, is they look at our cost of generating electricity; let's say 200 dollars to generate 1 megawatt of power in one hour, they will use that number and then project their cost whether itís solar, wind, run on river and so on and they will figure that the pay back is in 7 or 12 years whatever that is. So here I am in the community, Iím paying electricity at 25 cents/kilowatt hour in my house or 30 cents and so on, okay, so if you think say in Thunder Bay you're paying about 8 plus cents a kilowatt hour. So in a remote community, Iím paying three times that. Now, itís already high to begin with at 25 cents a kilowatt hour, so when Joe biomass or Joe solar comes in and so on theyíre only using the current costs and if you project it over 7, 10 years we want our costs to be lower, not to maintain our costs over the next 12 years you know. Thatís the scenario they give. So whoever gives us, you know if its renewable okay, and if you can produce electricity a lot cheaper, then okay, then we should pay a cheaper price. But no one is going to take a chance and invest that kind of money and spend millions of dollars at a comparable price to the rest of Ontario tax payers, or rate payers are paying. No oneís going to do that. Itís based on a global situation. Now thatís not often understood you know, by even government.

Those tourist camps are not running on solar, they just supplement what they already have at the site and after all they are only seasonal you know. But in our community people have to live 365 days of the year you know. So thatís our situation, I know itís long winded on the whole power, electricity scenario but we are looking for different options. We did look into using biomass and trying to make it pay by producing lumber and then chipping the wood to generate steam that would create heat and sell that heat to a number of buildings. Dry lumber so we can use that same lumber for construction. We looked at all of that, and I think we were probably ahead of the game in those days, at that time none of this stuff was really looked at and we didnít get any support on that back in the late 70s early 80s. Anyways thatís a long winded answer there.

Food Security

WT - I donít find it long winded, I found it pretty informative. When youíre talking about bread at 6 dollars a loaf anyone would consider almost any alternative to bring in food. So my understanding is in the past youíve said in speeches and so on, that green houses are something that you want to look into. Can you tell me a little bit about how you see a greenhouse working in your community and sort of whatís been done so far and sort of give me a sense of the advice youíre getting around green houses and self-sustainable food.

Chief Yesno - - Yes again, you know when we looked at greenhouses we realized that the problem we would have up north is that we have a reduced number of days of sun and if we wanted to rely on that we would need energy to supplement the heating of these green houses; and if you look at what the cost of a head of lettuce would be at the end of that, you would find the head of lettuce would not be a saving. We would have spent a lot more energy to produce that head of lettuce. Now we have looked at and we are still looking, because thereís one thing we learned through this pandemic year of is that we need food security because right now we have to rely onbrought-in food, except for fresh fish, meat, walleye.

In the last five years we started to develop a community garden. The first year you know, we thought it was great, I think we harvested something like 12,000 pounds and we did get some assistance on that and by the third or fourth year our yield had increased to 80,000 pounds in just potatoes. The reason I mention potatoes is because they are heavy, so if you have to fly them in, it's probably 60 percent of the cost or more. So now, technology has changed quite a bit, weíve looked at different models of production, to look at green houses everything from hydroponic gardening to greenhouses but greenhouse structured more like a building. So that way you would take advantage of the temperature fluctuations, for us cold weather so that we would be able to maintain a medium temperature and grow the vegetable. So weíve looked at that and we think thatís a good option to look at because were trying to encourage our people to eat a healthy foods like vegetables.

Vegetables did not figure much in our diet, we're more fish and meat eaters. But we need to introduce these foods because our way of life has changed and now we have other health issues because were trying to maintain the diet we had before and were not supplementing it with the healthier foods like vegetables and fruits and so on, and rely less on pasta, and pork you know. So were looking at all of that and I think whatís certainly driving it for me is finding ways to be more secure in food.

We need to partner with other people because this is not something weíve done in our past. So, we found one partner and weíre hoping to expand on that relationship to grow fruits and vegetables. Right now what we may do - going back to our diesel generation - those diesel generators generate a lot of heat and right now itís just expelled into the air. What Iíd like to do is harness that heat from the generators. We did this before back in the 70s and what we were able to do at the time, was heat up our fire hall where our fire truck was stored, and then we had three other bays were our equipment could be maintained in that. At that time we didnít have a lot of buildings except for the two buildings that were in close proximity to where our generator is. Now, the generator is probably twice the size it was in the 70s. So thereís more heat.

What I'd like to do there is find a way, in fact hereís what I had in mind anyways. You know were always short on buildings in the community even when thereís a a community court that comes in. If the washroom doesnít work at the community hall, the court doesnít happen there, so they go over conflicts and hold court at the band office. Anyways not much work gets done the day when that happens. So we donít have a court house letís use that as an example. On hot days in the summer when someone dies and we donít have a morgue, we donít have other facilities; we donít even have an exercise place where people can exercise. So what Iíd like to do is build a walk-in cooler where we could store vegetables and fruit so they donít spoil because we do get vegetables and fruit from the RFDA which is a regional food bank associate out of Thunder Bay here. So when they come in, its like 3,000 pounds you know, and if you donít have a refrigeration unit in hot July, they can spoil very quickly.

So, my plan is to have a walk-in cooler but also have a freezer, a community freezer where we can keep food frozen. We could use that for our community as well, you know for our winterís community fish, or moose meat or you know things like that. I would like to situate that building really close to our generator station so we can harness its generated heat. And thereís where I was going to experiment starting a greenhouse you now. Using the heat off the diesel generating station, thatís one idea. The other one weíve been looking into is partnering with the Discovery House, and weíve got a lot of partners like Samsung and Walt Disney and others that are coming in. What weíd like to build is a 40 to 60 unit residence. A part of it would be nurses and doctors that are visiting or residents. The other part would be seniors, or assisted living. So instead of them being housed in a house with four bedrooms you know with 2-3 other family units, they can be housed in a home thatís quieter, more secure. So thatís the accommodation side but above that building is to create a greenhouse to grow vegetables and other things right now.

So those are things were looking at to address food security, accommodation, electricity, proper disposal of sewage, clean water but it takes time. It takes more time because we have to find new types of partners because government doesnít know how to do that because they are afraid of success, since theyíll have to multiply that so many times you know. They/re only in the business of Band-Aid solutions, theyíre not there to fix things. They keep you standing on one leg so that they can always you know manipulate you just like what the province does. The province is the biggest beneficiary under our treaty, there a signatory to the treaty and this whole province has been built on the resources here in Ontario. Here we are our treaty partner just quiet you know. Honouring their terms as a signatory to the treaty.

Natural Resource Extraction

WT Ė This is the last question and where I want to go. How do you as a Grand Chief and now Chief and with all of your yearsí experience Chief Yesno, how do you reconcile with your people something like the resource extraction thatís going on in all of these communities and the split of that with the native communities. I know that youíve spoken to this when you were Grand Chief quite a bit, can you just for the last question explain what you want, whatís wrong with resource extraction and the treaty deal?

Chief Yesno - - Thank you. First of all, I think the overarching issue right now is the constitutional construct and the provisions to assist First Nations residing primarily under the federal government, the Indian Act and so on. Take as an example the boil water advisory, weíve been dealing with successive governments, both in Ontario and Canada, but our community doesnít view it as Prime Minister Harper, Martin, or Trudeau or Chretien, we view it as a Canada Crown issue which is indivisible, which comprises Canada and the province. We view ourselves as a partner, letís call it a 4-legged stool. We are one of those legs, and we have won 310 consecutive court cases at all levels of the court across the country, and I think you know thatís what the government is not really paying attention to. Sometimes even our First Nation leaders are focused on the relationship of Canadaís fiduciary responsibility to First Nations or Aboriginal people and what we should be looking at when it comes to resource development, is not revenue sharing. What is revenue sharing, to share taxes and loyalties? What needs to happen is the equity participation of First Nations which is far different from resource revenue sharing. I believe that in Canada and even in the province, theyíre afraid because they donít want to lose control, particularly the provinces on the management of the natural recourse sector, you can see that in the development of the confederation that what agreements have been put in place, when the treaty making was done by design to transfer the authority of management of the natural resources. So that has to change.

Hereís something I know of, as painful as it was to get an education outside of the community, youíve got a younger population more educated, more informed and guess what probably a little more activist. I think if Canada and Ontario donít pay attention and change the course they are in, weíre going to be in a situation where First Nations are run by young people who will not tolerate what I, or my predecessors have and thatís what I see. Thatís the wealth that could be created would be beneficial to Canada and the provinces but they are afraid because they want to be the engine you know instead of just being the regulator on the environment and so on, they want to be the owner and promoter. Look whatís happening in Ontario here, you got Ministers and even the Premier sounding like theyíre the chair of the corporation thatís going to develop that resource.

Industry doesnít want those guys to run the show; if they want to run the show let them raise the capital. They know the business and if they can partner with First Nations, weíre the one leg of that stool that provides certainty in developing northern Canada.

Thatís what I see and itís going to take some mustard from the current ministers and leaders to see that things need to change otherwise were going to see more confrontation. Even though there are First Nations that appear to be very pro-development, often theyíre put into that situation because theyíre in a compromised position of the finances that they are managing; they are either a third party or co-managed so theyíre not running their own affairs. Their affairs are being run by the government, to keep operations going.

WT - Chief Yesno, I think we will leave it there.


The saga of long-term water advisories in First Nations communities


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