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Water Today Title May 30, 2024

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First Nations

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This interview is dedicated to the memory of Chanie Wenjack



WT Interview with Chief Bruce Achneepineskum of Marten Falls First Nation. The transcription below was edited for clarity and length

WT: Thanks for doing this Chief. I wanted to address first, the state of the water plant and what’s going on so far with the new plant. If you could give me a background on how it came to be that it took this long, where it's at now, and what’s going on with it in the future?

Chief Bruce: We started on the new water plant approximately two years ago, that’s how long it’s taken to complete the plant. Now we are in our finalization stages of commissioning the plant, but there are still some issues with commissioning the plant for us. Our community feels that in order for us to lift, to approve the BWA being lifted, we need adequate resources for O & M, operations, and maintenance. As it stands, we are only being funded for one full-time operator. For a treatment plant that size, we need two plant operators to run the plant adequately. Given that this is infrastructure, this is a plant that needs round-the-clock maintenance. So that’s one of the issues we have with the government right now, in terms of us finally commissioning the new plant, and also having access to technical experts that can fix the plant when emergencies arise. We need a new water plant operator trained and certified as soon as possible, to have back-up resources for our water plant.

We have been on boil water advisory close to twenty years, as you may know, recently I put out a media release on our joining of that class action lawsuit. You know, our community has suffered all those years, that was the reason for joining the class action lawsuit, our members suffered from having to deal with non-potable water, that means you know, we have to boil water every day. It finally came around that Indigenous Services Canada finally started, a few years ago, started providing us bottled water from Thunder Bay on a weekly basis. That’s supposed to be like 4L of water for every person in the community. At that time, it seemed like they just barely provided the bare minimum in terms of accessing potable safe drinking water for our community members. So as you know, all they did was provide the purchase of bottled water and the cost of transporting to the community by plane, just the bare minimum cost of that.

Most of our members don’t have vehicles, so must rely on other people, so still didn’t have access to drinking water. There was no funding for a person to deliver the water to the homes of people. We have been enduring that for quite a few years now, since we started receiving bottled water from places like the Thunder Bay area, that’s where they have bottled water plants. 

It's ironic to us that we have to have bottled water shipped to us, even though just down the hill there may be the best quality, best safest fresh water in the world.

What this points out to us is the lack of commitment to adequate infrastructure in the communities.

What we had previous to that was a small plant which our community rapidly outgrew, in terms of how that small water plant could enable the community to grow, with the addition of houses, additional infrastructure and buildings. Recently, one of our settlement monies purchased and constructed an ice arena. We couldn’t use water at times to flood the arena, it would take all the water from that old plant we had. In 1996 they installed the water and sewer system, sewer and water lines through the whole community, so even at that time they installed the hydrants, they were non-operational all that time, until we got this new bigger plant, so that’s a long time coming, for us to have non-operational hydrants. We don’t even have the infrastructure to operate those hydrants as it is, like a fire hall, fire truck – this all points to a lack of commitment by the federal government on infrastructure in the government.

That’s the crux of the larger picture we are looking at.

WT: I know you have been an advocate for resource development, community ownership of projects, now that this water plant is getting officially approved to dispense clean water to your community, what happens now that you have clean water, does this help with economic development as well? Do you feel that your community will be healthier? Was the old plant still operating while the new plant was getting built?

Chief Bruce: Yes, we used the water but we had to boil it. Imagine anybody else, in the towns and cities having to boil their drinking water first, that’s really time-consuming, and its not safe at times, if you have little ones. This just points to issues that have been there a long time, with the First Nations accessing proper infrastructure in the communities. That’s taken a long time for us to access just the water treatment plant. That’s just only one part of the equation to getting First Nations on par with what’s happening with the rest of the country. So you know, we aren’t the only First Nation, there are many First Nations in the same boat. I talk about this in Chiefs’ meetings to raise those issues on how to move forward together with Canada, in order for us to grow as a community.

We have over 850 members registered to our First Nation, but approximately a quarter of our membership are living on reserve. And the reason why three quarters, the rest of population don’t live here, is there’s no proper infrastructure, there’s lack of housing and lack of services. So, you know, if you want to know why First Nations people are migrating to the cities, it’s the systemic issues that are there. That’s what we face every day in the community.

WT: I remember talking to you and Chief Sunny Daigneault a bunch of times about this, can you get me up to date on the North-South Alliance, how is that going for you? I like the political aspect of that alliance and I was wondering, is it still going forward?

Chief Bruce: Yes, you know, as a community, our First Nations traditional lands encompass the Ring of Fire area, so as a First Nation that is directly involved, we have to be involved in all aspects of any sort of resource development in our traditional lands. So, we are actively engaged with the provincial government right now, but with the federal government, it seems like they are absent at times for any sort of discussions, in terms of getting First Nations ready for development in the region, in terms of youth getting ready, for training, for opportunities to be employed, if mining comes in the area, we need more work on that. I’m not saying there haven’t been training programs, but we need to really keep on moving in terms of how to improve community members. Not just members in the community, but membership I am accountable to, I am accountable to the total membership, whether they live in the community or out of the community.

We are looking for ways to improve the community, to improve our community members' quality of life, regardless of where they live, so we are actively engaged with the provincial government to improve the socio-economic situation in the community.

It all stems from the Treaty we have with the provincial and federal governments, why our grandfathers and grandmothers signed the treaty, to share the benefits of the land, they signed the treaty to use the resources in a good way together. That’s not happening today, we are just barely getting one piece of the equation in terms of a water treatment plant. We need to go a long way more.

WT: I had noticed when I was up there last time, that you were looking for economic development through forestry, you just mentioned training – has the mine sale been worked out? Are you getting support for the forestry initiative that you started?

Chief Bruce: Well, you know we are involved in forestry operations, and as you know, the forestry industry is very fickle at times, it all comes down to resources and capacity for our First Nation.

For us to succeed at any sort of resource development, we need the capacity, we need the resources to be successful at economic development ventures such as forestry or mining.

I’m a great believer myself, personally, you know, if we improve our economic situation, if we have an economy within the First Nations in the region, that we will improve the quality of life, and the members will have a better way of living, we won’t have to live in poverty. Many of my members are on social assistance right now, that’s something we want to move away from.

We want to move into building an economy, just like any nation in the world, we need our own resources, our own economy, to grow as a nation.

WT: Given now that there is an expected election, I think as of Sunday, at least the gossip on the hill is Sunday, what would you like to see during this election from Minister Miller and from the Prime Minister, what would you say to them? Do you want them to have a debate up in the Ring with you and the other Chiefs? How can you lever this election to get some development going?

I understand you are on Phase 2 of the road, what would you say to the Prime Minister and Minister Miller?

Chief Bruce: I would say, where is the commitment to building an economy in partnership with First Nations? This is an opportunity for the First Nations to use our resources in our traditional lands in the best way possible, but all at the same time preserving our lands, after all, those lands are preserving our way of life also. If we can do both, that’s where we are trying to go.

I would like to see a government that’s supportive of First Nations trying to build their economies in communities like Marten Falls. It is not only a question of building an economy in Marten Falls, it's for building an economy between all First Nations, there are a lot of First Nations that are going to be involved if there is development in the Ring of Fire, so we need to have that commitment from both levels of government. The principle of working together, having that open dialog and commitment from the governments based on the treaty that we signed. That enabled the governments to move forward in accessing our land and waters and benefitting greatly.

As one Chief said in the past, “it's time to fill the packsack on the First Nations side”.


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


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