More than a dozen First Nations in northern Ontario can participate in an innovative Indigenous-led solution to drinking water problems in remote communities thanks to a $4 million investment announced Wednesday by the federal government.
The Safe Water Project was started as a pilot project by the Keewaytinook Okimakanak First Nations in 2015. Three of the five communities involved have since been able to lift their long-standing boil water advisories and a fourth is expected to do so soon.
"If we can make this work for Fort Severn, the farthest community north in Ontario, we can make it work anywhere," said Chief Paul Burke of Fort Severn First Nation on the coast of Hudson Bay, one of the five communities that started the project.
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It offers training to certify local water plant operators so they can run the complex water systems that often break down in remote communities. It also provides up-to-the-second water-quality monitoring and support for the operators, from headquarters in Dryden, Ont.
For years people in his community lived in fear of their own tap water, concerned it would cause rashes or disease, said Burke.
"It scares people," he said. "We've got people that would rather go out on the land, get snow in the winter time, melt it and that's what they drink. That's what they live on. I do the same because I don't trust my tap water."
The water plant in his community failed shortly after it was built more than a decade ago, he said.
A common problem
It's a situation that's common in fly-in First Nations where the federal government built complicated water systems without considering the capacity in the communities to operate or fix them, said Barry Strachan, the public works manager for Keewaytinook Okimakanak.
"The federal government has always downloaded programs onto First Nations, thinking they were doing a good thing," Strachan said. "The motivation was correct, but the result was nil because there was no ownership at the community level."
Since the Safe Water Project is based on listening and responding to community needs, "we can't fail," he said.
Seeing the success in lifting water advisories, 14 other First Nations in northern Ontario approached the original group to ask if they could join the Safe Water Project. The new federal funding makes that possible.
'Institutions, not programs'
The Keewaytinook Okimakinak leaders believe it's a model that could help solve drinking water problems across the country. Two-thirds of all First Nations communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade.
The project falls in line with the thinking of Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett who says the federal Liberals are interested in building "institutions, not programs."
"The more that the department can be empowering First Nations institutions to be self-determining on these kinds of things, and other kinds of infrastructure as well — that's the key," Bennett said as she announced the new funding.
Chiefs like Paul Burke are already thinking about where the concept of training and supporting local people to take on critical roles in their communities could be applied next.
"Our vision is to empower First Nations communities across Canada to take control of their infrastructure issues," Burke said.