Efforts to provide running water to homes in Pikangikum are being hampered by an inadequate power supply according to the head of a volunteer group working with the remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

The Pikangikum Working Group has installed water systems in 10 of the 450 homes in the First Nation, at a fraction of the price government studies said it would cost, organizer Bob White said.

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Toronto-based engineer Bob White, who has Mi'kmaq ancestry, is part of the Pikangikum Working Group. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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Donations are available to continue the work, White said, but the First Nation's diesel-generated power supply can't handle the additional load of the water pumps and the water heaters.

"Now we can't supply the water systems because we don't have the power," White said.

The problems with the power supply made a suicide crisis earlier this year even more difficult for community, White said.

'Tragic loss'

Four people died, three by suicide, in January. 

"In addition to the tragic loss of their children, the people of Pikangikum have had to withstand the loss of power to the whole community because the diesel generators failed," White wrote in a letter to supporters. "Surely it is time these, almost 3,000, people of Ontario, Canada have access to the same electrical grid you and I have access to."

Pikangikum has been fighting for decades for a connection to the Ontario power grid. The nearest transmission line is less than 100 kilometres away, but funding for the project is scarce.

For now the working group is looking at more pragmatic solutions, White said, such as switching to LED light bulbs throughout the community to conserve energy for water services.

A second suicide crisis

It was another suicide crisis that first brought White's attention to Pikangikum. In 2011, the engineer and community development expert was asked to comment on a coroner's report on the death of 16 children in Pikangikum who died by suicide between 2006 and 2008.

"What are engineers doing helping people that have a crisis in suicide?" White asks. "If you can help them achieve their basic human rights, we believe that will contribute to the health and welfare of the whole community."

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A kitchen without running water on Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario. The sink has no tap because there is no indoor plumbing and the black plastic containers are for hauling water from a communal standpipe in the community. (Coleen Rajotte/CBC)

So he and two other experts formed the working group and met with people in Pikangikum to determine their needs. There were many, but providing running water and sewage to homes seemed like the most achievable goal.

The Anglican Church of Canada helped raise $100,000 for the project, and other donations doubled that, White said. That amount paid for cisterns, a water heater, and indoor plumbing for 10 of the most vulnerable families in the First Nation. White recently met with one of them.

"A young mother, in that house of 13 people, a little three-bedroom house, and that house was neat as a pin," he said recalling the visit. "And the seven kids were all scrubbed and clean and their hair was still wet and I asked the mother what benefit she received from the water system and she said, 'to be able to bathe my children.'"

One-tenth the cost 

White said the working group is installing water systems for $20,000 per house. Federal government studies peg the cost at $200,000 per house.

"So there's something wrong with the costing, I think, with the studies," White said, while admitting his system of trucking water to holding tanks isn't as "robust" as the government's plan to pipe water to each home.

At first, White said the Anglican Church questioned whether it should be raising money through donations for a basic right, such as water, which should be provided by the government. White said the answer was clear.

"We can wait until the government does something, but that may take a long time and it may never come," he said. "Or we can do something now."

White said he remains optimistic that solutions can be found for the power supply and more water systems installed because so many Canadians are now engaged with the issue through their donations to the working group.