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'THERE IS GOVERNMENT FUNDING BUT THERE JUST ISN’T ENOUGH TO DEAL WITH THE BACKLOG THAT’S THERE', CHIEF MARACLE, MOHAWKS OF THE BAY OF QUINTE
The transciption below has been edited for clarity and length.
WT – Can you tell me a little bit about your community and a little bit about this long-term boil water advisory and how you and the community came to be in this situation in 2021?
Chief Maracle – We’re the fourth largest community in Ontario. We have a membership of just over 10 thousand members. 2200 live in the community, and then there’s probably another three or four hundred non-member spouses and children that live with their families here. They don’t have Indian Status, but they reside in the community. We’ve been on a boil water advisory since 2008. We’ve made some progress but there is still a lot more work to be done.
WT – When you say there’s a lot more work to be done, what was wrong in the first place? What was the work that has been done up until now and what work needs to be done to fix this? It’s a little bit incredible to me as an environmental reporter to be talking to a Chief about a ten to fifteen year long boil water advisory in the first place.
Chief Maracle – Well first of all, back in the 1970’s, the summer students did some water testing on the wells and found that the majority of the wells were contaminated with high fecal bacteria counts as well as e- coli counts. Coupled with all of that, the chemistry of the water is very poor. Its highly mineralized, so a lot of the wells had sort of a rotten egg smell to the water. Also, there was contamination from septic systems getting in the water, but the ground water is generally very very poor. There’s also a quantity issue; during drought times a lot of the wells in the community went dry, so the people didn’t have water at all. So, there’s been a history of water insecurity in the community.
WT – When people are under a boil water advisory such as that, especially when e-coli is involved, how does it break out for the average family? Do they need to haul water, is it delivered, how does that work?
Chief Maracle – It’s a variety of situations. Some people would haul water in containers in the back of their vehicles, trucks usually or they would buy jug water. In the beginning that’s how it was done, or in pails, people did that with their vehicles, went to a safe source to get drinking water and hauled it. In 1986 – 87 there was a water line built from the town of Deseronto to service the Bay area. Right now, there is 313 people connected to that system. Then over the years we’ve had water line expansion. In 2016 we developed a 26.7-million-dollar water treatment plant which was designed to provide potable drinking water through water force veins to the entire community. Last year we constructed a 14.5-million-dollar water line along the York Road from Meadow Drive to the village of Shannonville.
Currently this year we’re in a phase 3 project which will cost 18 million dollars to take water to the Shannonville area to the Airport area where the First Nations Technical Flying School is located and the summer student residences. That will be the first time they’ve had potable drinking water and to Johnsons Lane and that area. Then there is other phases where were scheduled. We’re currently in the design phase for 30 million dollars from infrastructure Canada but it still will not be enough money to service all of the roads on the community and provide all of the community with safe drinking water.
So, right now we are in a level 1 drought again. In 2017 there was a major, major drought in southeastern Ontario where 67 thousand people were without water when the ground water basically dried up. So, with the wells that in the community nearly 99 percent of them are duty wells which means you need to have rain fall and recharge the stream so that the ground water recharges. It hasn’t rained enough in many years to recharge the ground water, so people’s wells do run dry, so there is water insecurity. So, we have a quality and quantity problem in our community.
WT – Walk me through a scenario here. The whole idea of this series is we want to talk to the people themselves who are under these boil water advisories because WaterToday felt a fair amount of the mainstream media was just statistics, ‘money was given to this band, they’re under a BWA, they get this many millions’. There’s been quite a push back from the commentariat, if you like to call it that, about all of this money going out the door and some of the other bands have said “well, the first water plant was designed in the wrong place”, some bands said “Well, the money just took way too long to get here”. Do you have a principal reason why it took so long to do all of this?
Chief Maracle – Well, really there has to be a political commitment. The Minister of Indigenous Services has to argue at the cabinet table for this to be a priority in terms of the government’s overall spending. So, I think the current minister has done a good job in terms of getting more money than there’s ever been there for water; as Mark Miller said, progress has been made but there is still a lot of work to do.
You need to recognize where the boil water advisories are. According to Peter Ross, who is the Senior Environmental Health Officer for the government of Canada, he sent a report the first of June this year which indicated that there are 44 remaining boil water advisories on 26 communities in First Nations in Ontario. Oneida First Nation would be a large First Nation, there on boil water advisories as well as Mohawk Bay of Quinte and there are some scattered throughout the whole province of Ontario. So, the majority of boil water advisories, there are six in Saskatchewan, two in Manitoba, none in British Columbia, none in Quebec and none in the Maritimes. There are three have been lifted and non-remaining in Quebec.
So, basically Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Of the 52 boil water advisories in Canada, the 44 of them were in Ontario, but according to Cathleen Cordello, the environmental officer from the Chiefs of Ontario, she claims there are 60 do not consume orders and 3 type 1 boil water advisories which means they have to boil water the before they can drink it. So, you can have a boil water advisory to boil before you drink it, another do not consume and another one do not use order. Do not use orders would come when there are blue green algae blooms which we have along the Bay of Quinte here on a regular basis. There are times when people that have shore wells would get a don’t not use order because the blue green algae is toxic if its consumed or comes into contact with your skin. So, it becomes a major public health concern.
WT – Just to cover the blue green, your community has had extreme outbreaks of blue green, or it just shows up once in a while?
Chief Maracle – Well, we usually sometime during the mid-summer to fall there will be blue green algae blooms along the shoreline. Really the shoreline wells do not meet proper standards. For example, with a communal water system it if were off the reserve the Ministry of the Environment would give orders to get it fixed within so many hours. Off reserve standards it wouldn’t drag on for years and years unsolved. This is one of the deficiencies that’s in the regulatory process for systems on reserve and it really is because there’s not enough money. What compounds it in the Ontario region is Ontario does not get its fair share of capital to address these issues and so this has been a long-standing issue that Chiefs have raised, and I have raised many times with the federal government, but this is something that needs to be corrected. I understand that there’s going to be a significant investment of capital to tackle these boil water advisories and I think that the lion’s share of it should come to the Ontario region because they have highest number of boil water advisories.
Its not just the water systems that are deficient, a lot of the other infrastructure needs significant investment like the roads, the housing, the community buildings and along with a proper of level operating and maintenance funds to maintain the assets once their constructed. So, there’s a lot of reform required in the way that these projects are funded and maintained. We understand that the government is committed to making adjustments to the formulas so that they reflect the current cost, the government recognizes that the formulas have been updated now for some time as a result there’s a lot of reform required.
WT – If you had advice for Chiefs, and I understand people need to be careful offering advice to other Chiefs in different situations, would you have any advice for Chiefs that are not getting anywhere with fixing their boil water advisories, or the money is taking way too long, would you have any advice for them?
Chief Maracle – Well there has to be a strong collective voice because the right to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. Carolyn Bennett did say in the United Nations that safe drinking water is a human right. I totally agree with that. Really the issue is that the First Nations are faced with many of the investments that are required to ensure adequate safe drinking water, proper safe roads to drive on, safe schools, safe drinking water and affordable housing are all basically necessities and human rights.
So, there’s a lot of work to be done to bring the First Nations up to standards that are comparable to off-reserve. There’s a strong investment and I guess we have to work with the government to get the money that’s needed but we’re in a time of reconciliation, but we can have apologies and gestures by moving statues out of parks and put them in different locations, those are nice gestures but there has to be a strong investment of money to bring about reconciliation to correct these deficiencies and inequality that currently exists and the lack of fundamental human rights. One of them is the right to safe drinking water and adequate housing and safe roads, and safe community.
WT – I couldn’t agree more.
Chief Maracle – I would strongly recommend a partnership. Maybe there could be a foundation created where the public could contribute and partner with the government to generate the money that’s required to put in the basic infrastructure to bring things up to standards comparable to what’s off reserve.
WT – Id like to explore the idea of a foundation. I would like to get your view on how a foundation would work if you wouldn’t mind.
Chief Maracle – I think first you’d have to put some people on a board of directors I guess that would be known to the public that could harness public support. I think a lot of Canadians want to do better going forward and the future, they recognize that the past has not been a history that Canadians can be proud of. First Nations stood side by side with the English Crown at times of war and at pivotal times in history without First Nations support, Canada may have never come in to existence, particularly in the war of 1812. Also in the first World War, second World War, First Nations people including hundreds of people from my community volunteered their services and fought and died many of the major battles in the European continent at war time. Its unacceptable that our people would have third world conditions and lack of safe drinking water, and lack of opportunity for education in many cases.
There is government funding but there just isn’t enough to deal with the backlog that’s there. The backlog has increased as the government tried to rectify the gender discrimination against Aboriginal women by giving them status and their children and grandchildren status. The funding to deal with servicing and water lines and infrastructure this was not provided in adequate amounts to address the need. So there’s a lot of unmet need and closing the gap is one of the goals of Chiefs everywhere is to close the gap. You know the government says it’s one of their commitments as well but I think there needs to be a relationship with the public and government sector to close the gap a lot sooner.
WT – I think WaterToday would look into that. Thank you for doing this
Chief Maracle – So maybe everybody who takes water for granted could start by making a contribution. I’m talking to the bank of Montreal about setting up a foundation about where Canadians could contribute to something like that to help with water and affordable housing. Also, there’s a need for long term care, we’re working in our community to build a 128-bed long term care project and with the pandemic impact the cost of that project went from 30 million to 49 million because of the cost of steel and building materials. Everything has been impacted in pricing upward because of the pandemic impact. So, there is a lot of challenges that First Nations have to generate the capital and operating cost to maintain basic infrastructure and I just think it’s a human right and everybody should work towards a better future than what’s been in our past.
WT – No disagreement here. Thanks for doing this Chief.
The saga of long-term water advisories in First Nations communities
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