British Columbia

Semiahmoo First Nation takes first step toward new water system

The Semiahmoo First Nation, which has been on a permanent boil water advisory for 15 years, and on and off for another 10 years before that, celebrated the first step toward new water infrastructure on Friday.

The small community has been on a permanent boil water advisory for 15 years.

Semiahmoo band councillor Joanne Charles boils some water in a kettle. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The construction of a modest road into a small community wouldn't usually get a full ground-breaking photo op, complete with gold-coloured shovels and government officials.

But for the Semiahmoo First Nation, the road work is just the first step toward new water infrastructure that will end the community's 15-year permanent boil water advisory.

"I'm waiting for a day to be able to turn on a tap and drink a glass of water," said Harley Chappell, Semiahmoo's elected chief. "That's the goal."

The First Nation's water and sewer systems are outdated and inadequate, which is why residents have been on a boil-water advisory for years. Fewer than 100 people live in the community, about 40 of them First Nation.

The provincial transportation ministry is bankrolling the remediation and reconstruction of Beach Road, which connects the village, nestled between White Rock and Surrey, right on the U.S. border.

Officials from the City of Surrey, the B.C. Transportation Ministry, Indigenous Services Canada, Semiahmoo First Nation and a local MP take part in a photo op to mark the start of a road remediation project. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Once that work is done, but before the pavement is laid down, water, sewer, and fire suppression pipes will be installed to connect the community with Surrey's municipal infrastructure.

According to Chappell, a little less than half of the First Nation's 90 members live on reserve. About as many non-members also live there.

There's an aging pipe that connect some of the homes to White Rock's water system, the rest are on wells.

All of the homes have to boil their water, or rely on store-bought bottled water.

The water advisory has been permanent for 15 years, but it was on and off for at least another ten years before that.

Band councillor Joanne Charles said there are young people in the community who have never lived without having to boil the water that comes out of the taps.

"That's just what the last, really, 20-plus years are like," said Charles on Friday. "And so today is a fantastic great day for turning a new page in our history book, to show that we are finally getting caught up to the rest of the local communities."

According to Charles, a neighbourhood just a couple hundred metres from her home has had clean drinking water the entire time.

The pipes are expected to be installed sometime around Christmas, Chappell said, adding that, excluding the road work, the project is expected to cost about $9 million.

Harley Chappell, elected chief of Semiahmoo First Nation, says the new water system will usher in a new era for him community. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Being on a boil water advisory really hinders a lot of our band membership, our family members from coming home," he said.

Chappell, who left the reserve more than 20 years ago, lives in the Fraser Valley. He believes a lot of people have left the community due to the water issue, and he looks forward to returning himself, once the water problem is solved.

"It's a lot to leave behind — this is home. And this will always be home for us," said Chappell.

The improvements coming to the community are part of a federal effort to end permanent water advisories across the country by 2021.

According to a government website, 80 long-term water advisories have been lifted since late 2015, while 60 remain in place.

In British Columbia there are still five, including Semiahmoo, Wet'suwet'en, Stellat'en, Xeni Gwet'in, and Bonaparte.


Is there more to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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