Edmonton·In Depth

Only Alberta First Nation left under long-term boil water advisory to break ground on treatment plant

Kehewin Cree Nation, with about 1,400 people living in 300 houses, is breaking ground Monday on a long-awaited new water treatment plant.

The Kehewin Cree Nation has been under a boil water advisory since April 23, 2011

Kehewin Cree Nation's outdated water treatment plant. The eastern Alberta community will be breaking ground on a new one Monday, ending a nine-year boil water advisory. (Ben Badger)

When Kehewin Cree Nation Coun. Ben Badger travels off his eastern Alberta community with his family, no matter where they go, he says his children always ask him if they can drink the water. 

"My kids just innately, instinctively react: 'Dad, can I drink this water?'" said Badger, whose reserve, according to the federal government, has been under a boil-water advisory for the past nine years. "Children from our community have to ask, when they leave reserve: 'Is it safe to drink this water?'

"In Edmonton, you take it for granted that you have some good water you can drink. But the reality in some of our communities is... it just doesn't exist."

But all that could change for the Kehewin Cree Nation, with an estimated 1,400 people living in 330 homes on the reserve. The community —located about 230 km northeast of Edmonton — is breaking ground Monday on a long-awaited new water treatment plant. 

"I think for us, having clean drinking water, if and when it happens, will be a huge celebration," said Badger. 

Badger said the plant itself is expected to cost an estimated $14 million, with an additional $5 million going toward a transmission line.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) expects Kehewin's long-term drinking water advisory will be lifted by March 2020.

Contaminated source water, outdated plant

Now in his mid-30s, Badger can't remember a time when Kehewin Cree Nation wasn't under a boil-water advisory. 

"I always was aware that we weren't able to drink our water," he said, reflecting on the warnings he saw posted around his community when he was a teenager. "We'd be playing basketball, we had like this really makeshift net down in the townsite, and everybody wanted to play, but we couldn't play because we didn't have enough water."

Kehewin Cree Nation Coun. Ben Badger is cautiously optimistic about a water treatment plant being built and resolving the community's long-term boil water advisory. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

The community's issues are two-fold, Badger explained.

Its source water, Kehewin (Long) Lake, is contaminated by the activities going on around it, he said. 

"We have industry. We have agriculture. We have ranching," he said. "All that activity drains into the drainage points, which is our water source." 

Secondly, the outdated water system in place since the 1970s is compromised by the blue-green algae that's lingering in the lake, Badger said. 

Health Canada lifts the advisory from time to time, if the water quality meets certain targets, but Badger said the advisory then "immediately goes back on."

Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said pathogens living in untreated water can have varying effects on the people drinking them. 

Toxins in the water from blue-green algae, for example, can't be boiled out. If water with the toxins is consumed, it can damage the liver. Smaller animals and cattle can die from ingesting too much of the toxins.

Bacteria that cause e. Coli or Legionnaires' disease may exist in untreated water, both of which can be lethal. 

Bacteria that cause stomach ulcers are also found in untreated water. Those stomach ulcers can lead to forms of cancer, but the science is still out on whether communities in Canada are seeing the effects of it, though studies from South America have shown contaminated water to be a factor.

"It's unclear if it's a significant contribution of the Helicobacter pylori in these remote rural communities," Ashbolt said.

Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, says there's plenty of toxins in untreated water. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC)

There's comfort in ignorance of the potential dangers, Badger said. 

"My fear, what I know to be true, but it's hard to say, is that people are drinking it," Badger said. 

Politics and promises 

During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals promised to get rid of boil-water advisories on reserves across the country. 

The party cruised to victory and took office in November 2015. 

"For me, I was obviously excited because I thought, 'Well, this is awesome. We can drink in our community,' " said Badger, who, two months earlier, had been elected to serve his own people. 

He said he immediately sat down with a project management team focused on bringing a new water treatment plant to fruition.

They set a timeline with a construction completion timeline and told members to expect the boil-water advisory to be bone within two years. 

Four years later, there is still no plant and no clear reason for the delay, Badger said.

Four years in the making

Badger, attentive to the project, said he became curious as it began to unfold, about whether the best technology was being considered. 

He said the nation felt pressure from federal bureaucrats to feed into the same regional water system that services the Frog Lake First Nation, which had its long-term boil water advisory lifted in 2016. 

"There has been interruptions from the department to use that paternalistic approach that they still know what's best for us," Badger said. 

ISC said discussions between them and the nation included a discussion about latching onto the regional water system, but the nation ultimately decided to build a standalone water system.

Frog Lake's latest long-term boil water advisory started in February 2016. It was lifted in November 2017. Lawrence Quinney has only worked at Frog Lake's water plant for a couple of weeks but said clean water is essential for the community.  

"It just means that it keeps the people healthy," Quinney said.

Despite Frog Lake's efforts to have drinkable water, Quinney said most people, including him, are still drinking only bottled water. 

"It's hard for somebody to trust something after you've lost that trust," he said.

The Indigenous Services Canada website indicates the Kehewin project is in the design phase. Badger said the design has been completed for at least three years. 

It's hard for somebody to trust something after you've lost that trust.- Lawrence Quinney, Frog Lake resident

"Commitment to construction is what we waited for," Badger said. 

"I don't know what sparked the urgency to finally commit the construction dollars, but we will all be cautiously optimistic because we were told it was approved years ago."

72 other communities under advisories

According to the Indigenous Services Canada website, there are still 72 other communities across the country under long-term boil water advisories. 

The website says that since 2015, 67 advisories have been lifted with federally-supported water systems.

Ashbolt said clean water for drinking and washing use is essential for positive health outcomes for all communities, not just First Nations. "Washing the body and clothes is essential as part of the health solutions of these communities," he said.

"Clean water is fundamental."