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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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First Nations

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WT staff

The transciption below has been edited for clarity and length.

WT - OK, I have Chief Wilfred King on the phone from the Gull Bay community in Ontario. Thanks for doing this.

Chief King - Thank you very much.

WT - I'm really interested in this because there are solutions coming out of what I've learned about your community. So, your community has been under a boil water advisory since April 30th, 2009. My understanding is that you have a new water plant built, so congratulations on that. Can you explain to the viewers how that came about, the process to this day?

Chief King - Well, actually, our process started much earlier than that. Back in 1999, about the time when the Walkerton fiasco became national news, Gull Bay was in a similar situation. We had a child in our community that died, and I'm not certain whether or not that child died as a result of tainted water. I know that the former chief had made comments that there might have been a link to problems with the water source, and it became a national news story about our community at the time. Right after that, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC at the time), had funded a new water treatment plant in 2000. And it was a six-million-dollar US filter system, chemical-treatment plant. When I was elected in 2002, I noticed some issues pertaining to this new plant being built. I raised questions with the engineering firm that was working on the plant and the engineer of record abruptly left. He resigned from his position and I started looking further into this plant and I found out that one of the big issues was that they did a design brief after the plant was built. I was really concerned because I said, well, how do you build the plant and then try to get approvals after the fact? And I requested information at the time from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

I found out through the process that the engineering firm Eagle Engineering did not have to go through a competitive bidding process. They were selected without a bidding process and they went ahead and worked, they were the engineers of record. I found out as well that the former chief might have been involved with Eagle Engineering. I'm not 100 percent sure, but it seems to me that there was a connection there between the owners of Eagle Engineering and the former chief. So I started asking questions from INAC. When I was reading the design brief I realized that a lot of information was missing so I asked for the complete record from INAC. Why the plant was built on the river was beyond my comprehension, considering that the elders of the community said that the plant should have been built at the Hudson Bay headlands where you have deep spring fed crystal clear water. But the Chief and Council at the time disregarded the elders advice and, with the blessing of INAC, they built a plant on the river. This plant could never produce potable water. This new plant that was built in 2000, it was commissioned on three different occasions and it could never produce potable water.

Another issue we raised with that plant related to its highly chemical nature, which led to the presence of cancer-causing THMs compounds in the water. And that was a real concern for our community. What further exacerbated the problem was that you pretty much needed it to be a chemical engineer to learn how to run that plant. It wasn't your typical plant where you can hire a water treatment plant operator. You had to be highly, highly skilled. Secondly, because of the toxicity of these chemicals, they couldn't be stored in a facility or the local landfill in Gull Bay or in Thunder Bay, but had to be shipped to, I believe, Winnipeg. So, it was a 20-year fight with INAC. And again, I firmly believe that the engineering firm was to blame. Also, I believe the Chief and Council at the time was to blame and also INAC was to blame. And I've had to fight with Indian Affairs for 20 years trying to get a new plant. Eventually, INAC finally agreed, yes, we should build a new plant for Gull Bay, and build it on the Hudson Bay headlands where the elders wanted it built. This new plant we have is a $25 million sand filtration water treatment with charcoal backup, which is one of the easiest and simplest plants to maintain and operate. It's been a long battle. It's been a 20-year battle to get a new water treatment plant. So, yes, we have been under a boil water advisory since 2009, but our fight goes back to 1999. Thank you.

WT - We always see people like myself doing boil water advisory stories and sort of how they came to be and what happens is front page news, with headlines about Indigenous communities under a Long term Boil Water Advisories, Minister promises $1.8 billion and it gets turned into numbers. What I'm looking to get from you, Chief, is how does it feel? What's it like for an entire community to be under a boil water advisory? Does it mean to you on a personal level?

Chief King - Well, on a personal level, you know, Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, Ontario is one of the richest provinces in the Dominion. And, you know, First Nations communities are still subjected to living in Third World living conditions. Clean water is a basic human right. And we feel that, you know, First Nation communities should be treated like any other community in Canada. When I see communities under boil water advisories, say, a non-native community, the system is fixed immediately. You know, people go without clean drinking water, maybe for two or three days, maybe a week at the most. But their systems are automatically fixed. And there's no question, there's no issue of funding. There's no issues in relation to who's going to do it. It gets done. But First Nations are subjected to lthe longest boil water advisories in any community in Canada. And that's not right. And it's important that a First Nations community should be treated just like any other Canadian, that we should have a right to clean drinking water.

WT - What advice do you have for the bands that are under boil water advisories now, what would you suggest they do?

Chief King - Well, what I would suggest they do is that they look at water from source to tap. Frst of all you have to look at where the water source comes from. Secondly, you have to look at your distribution system in the community and right to the people drinking from the tap. I think it's important that you look at the infrastructure system as a whole.

In addition to that, I think you have to look at is your wastewater system as well, because if it's not planned properly, your wastewater could possibly contaminate your drinking source. So I think they go hand in hand. Most important though is that you hire the right consultants, the right expertise to guide you in the right direction. And what I've noticed throughout my years as a chief for almost 20 years, is that you often have contractors that are more worried about their bottom line than about the community.

And I think it's really important that First Nations find good consultants who are going to make sure that they're looking after the interests of the community. You have to hire engineering firms and contractors that have the requisite knowledge and expertise. Another issue is that not every First Nation has a municipal engineer on their staff, so you have this reliance on either officials from INAC or Tribal Council and so forth, but you need that in-house expertise as well to have some oversight. I know that INAC's position has always been that they provide money for the water, for the treatment, for the construction, but they don't take any responsibility after that. I think it's really important that, you know, there be some oversight from other bodies as well.

WT - And my last question, I've noticed that you're on the Assembly of First Nations Committee for Sustainable Energy, that's something that WaterToday covers extensively. Can you tell us sort of how that worked out, why you're there? And an example of good community sustainable energy development.

Chief King - Actually we have Canada's first fully integrated off grid solar energy and storage in a remote First Nation community. We're the first in Canada to do this. Secondly, this project is 100 percent owned by Gull Bay First Nation when it was commissioned. And thirdly, we didn't add or use any of our own capital for this project. So it was a win-win for Gull Bay. When this project was first looked at, we're one of four communities in Ontario that will not be hooked up to the provincial grid for some time. And so we thought that, well, there has to be a way to offset our usage of dirty diesel generation.

We partnered with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and OPG, basically offered us a 50 percent ownership and then full ownership after 25 years. And I said that's not acceptable. You know, it has to be full ownership for Gull Bay and we have to own it when it's commissioned, when it's turned on. And that's what we've done in this case. And now we're quite lucky that, you know, this was properly planned.

Again, I think it's really important that you hire a very good consulting firm that's going to give you the real truth and not give you some pie in the sky ideas or promise you things that cannot be delivered. So it's really important, you know, that this is fully owned by Gull Bay First Nation. It's not a legacy project. It's a project owned by Gull Bay and it's a revenue generator for Gull Bay as well. And it's clean energy. We've reduced our diesel consumption by twenty five percent and at times the community is completely run on solar energy. So when the national chief and the Ontario regional chief visited our community, they were quite surprised to see how this project had been so successful.

In fact, we just did an interview with Harvard University yesterday to talk about our project. And this project can be replicated in the three hundred First Nation communities in Canada that are reliant on diesel generation. And it's our desire to share our experience and also our expertise with other First Nations at no cost to them. And hopefully it can be replicated not only in North America, but in other parts of the world, especially Indigenous communities that are reliant on dirty diesel. So the Assembly of First Nations has asked me if I would sit on the National Committee to help spearhead this project where they would rely on Gull Bay's expertise to assist other communities that may want to have this solar energy in their community. And we gladly accepted.

WT - It's wonderful, Just one last question, can I put your band contact information if other bands would like to discuss either water or sustainable energy with you directly? I really liked the part about hiring a good consultant.

Chief King - Absolutely, absolutely, I think that's really critical, and we're offering to share our experience because it's really important that it's done right and properly. If you don't start off with the right consultant you run into a situation where projects of this nature have failed. But I think, again, making sure that as a community you do your due diligence is really important.

WT - Chief King, I appreciate you doing this, and I wish you all the best in the future. Chief King - Thank you very much. Have a nice day. Bye bye.

Contact info:
Gull Bay First Nation
Thunder Bay, ON
Chief: Wilfred King
Toll Free: 1-855-982-0006


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


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