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Indigenous communities and McMaster lab partner in water quality research

Two Indigenous communities in Ontario and Alberta will be working with a research team in McMaster in a water quality project over the next three years.

‘That local knowledge is very important,’ says researcher

An interdisciplinary team of researchers out of McMaster University will be working with Six Nations of the Grand River and the Lubicon Cree Nation of Little Buffalo in a three-year water quality project. (JD Howell, McMaster University)

Two Indigenous communities will be working with a McMaster University research team to study the water on their land to determine the source of contaminants and develop an app that gives real-time updates on the local water quality.

Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario and the Lubicon Cree Nation of Little Buffalo in Alberta will be part of this three-year project that has secured $950,000 in funding.

Part of the research project will also involve studying the health impacts of the water quality on both communities.

Dawn Martin-Hill, principal investigator of the projcet and a resident on the Six Nations reserve, said both communities have had issues with their water for many years.

She said she was first excited to have running water when she started living in the home she's at now, but then kept getting drinking water advisories that told her the water from her tap was not safe.

"I just felt sick about that," she said.

The project will be looking at some of the health problems in people and animals over the years, and see if they may be related to the poor water quality, Martin-Hill added.

She said people have suffered from cancer and animals have been getting tumours, but it's not possible to know the causes unless they do the research.

Years of water problems

Six Nations is not the only community in Ontario that have poor water quality, many times requiring unsafe water to be boiled before use.

"The situation in [First Nations reserves] has been compared to Third World conditions," said Sheri Longboat, assistant professor at the department of rural planning and development at University of Guelph.

One of the examples is Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario, located 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.. The community has had a boil water advisory since 1995.

In 2014, the Six Nations reserve received a water treatment plant and their boil water advisories stopped. However, Longboat said treatment plants aren't always the solution.

She emphasized that every community face different types of challenges. For some that struggle with finances, maintaining a water treatment plant could be difficult.

Martin-Hill expressed concerns about the treatment plant in her community not reaching a large number of people.

She said the federal government did not give the community enough money to build the infrastructure so the water can reach everyone on the reserve, nor enough money to operate the plant.

Getting real-time data

Ravi Selvaganapathy, who is leading the sensor and app development, said it'll be "more of a co-creation" with regards to the app-building process, rather than getting the communities to provide feedback after everything is built.

"They have the local knowledge and they know exactly how and when they're using different water sources for instance," he said, "That local knowledge is very important."

Dawn Martin-Hill, principal investigator of the project, said the science of Indigenous peoples have never been acknowledged. She said this project will be bringing together Indigenous knowledge and conventional western scientific research.

"This is exciting because we're bringing these two systems together, that have never really engaged to this level," she said.

Researchers will use sensors to collect data on water quality and transmit that information wirelessly. That information then can be accessed through a mobile app, that's available in Cree and Mohawk.

Future sensor development

For now the research project will also focus on finding the reasons for poor water quality, aside from app development.

The research continues afterwards, where the team will develop low-cost sensors the communities are able to manufacture themselves.

Currently, the sensors they are using are purchased.

Selvaganapathy said they have applied for funding to design sensors that are cheaper, and teach community members how to make them "so that they have the requisite tools and they have a stake in sustaining this beyond the three-year scope of the project."

The research team will begin travelling to both communities beginning summer next year.

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