British Columbia·Video

B.C. Nazko First Nation asks: why can't we drink our water?

Water unsafe to drink at Nazko First Nation for over 16 years, despite new water treatment plant.

Water unsafe to drink at Nazko First Nation for over 16 years, despite new water treatment plant

Unable to drink local water for 16 years

7 years ago
Duration 3:49
B.C. First Nations community can't boil away these impurities. Duncan McCue reports

The Nazko Water Treatment Plant is a sturdy concrete building that houses a multi-million dollar treatment system, and it was supposed to give the residents of Nazko First Nation something they haven't had for over 16 years: drinking water from their taps.

Except – it hasn't worked yet.

"It's very upsetting. We live in Canada but on reserve it feels like Third World conditions," says Nazko Chief Stuart Alec. "Drinking, bathing — it's pretty appalling these conditions exist in this country."

A CBC News analysis of Health Canada data has found two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade. 

The data shows the water has been unsafe to drink for 16.7 years at Nazko First Nation, an hour's drive from Quesnel in British Columbia's interior.

High levels of arsenic and manganese in the water mean the community isn't just under a boil water advisory, but a "do not consume" order.

Elder Monica Paul worries unsafe drinking water will affect the health of children at Nazko First Nation. (CBC)

"We can't even brush our teeth with our tap water. When you take a shower, the water smells like bleach," says elder Monica Paul. "I'm scared for the young children on our reserve...they need good water to be healthy."

Bottled water has to be trucked into the community from Quesnel, then delivered to each home, at a total cost to the community of $4,000 per month.

Residents complain it's inconvenient to haul bottles inside, and they have to ration it or they run out.

"I'd like to be able to use my running water tap to come with a glass, drink it, wash dishes with it, cook with it," says band member Hazel Paul.

Treatment plant breakdowns

What is especially puzzling about the community's water troubles is that shiny new treatment plant, which sits smack dab in the middle of the reserve.

Nazko was at the top of the to-do list, when the Harper government announced in 2013 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) was investing $330 million over two years in First Nation water and wastewater systems.

Nazko's water treatment plant, which cost $3.6 million dollars, was welcomed by the community. 

Drinking water at Nazko First Nation has been unsafe to consume for over 16 years, due to high levels of arsenic and manganese. (CBC)

But from the get-go, Nazko water operator Jerry Laurent has experienced one breakdown after another.

"This could have been avoided, if the plumbers had come right away," says Laurent. "But they waited."

Amongst the many problems, according to Laurent, since the plant went operational in 2013: the chlorine injection line was air-locked, the manganese and arsenic filters stopped working, the back-flow check valve had to be replaced, and the backup generator broke down.

"I phone people to come out and fix it. But, they phone up the band office. They have to OK it first. They say there's no funding in place for it. So, the band office has to phone down to Vancouver to AANDC...." says Laurent, and on it goes.

Lack of training

It doesn't help that Laurent isn't fully certified to operate such a state-of-the-art system. He'd like to be, but he's still trying to log enough hours to get full certification.

AANDC's Circuit Rider Training Program is supposed to provide First Nations operators with hands on, on-site training and mentoring. But Laurent says he only sees the circuit rider once every six months.

When CBC requested an interview from AANDC, officials responded with an email saying the Department expects the Nazko water treatment plant to be operational this month.

It pegs the costs of the new arsenic filters at $58,000, but didn't mention any of the other problems, stating questions about "operation, maintenance and management" are for the First Nation to answer.

"They sent money so it would look like they're dealing with the issue," says Chief Alec. "But they needed a project manager on the ground to oversee the project, and report to the band and AANDC. None of that happened."


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.


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