Ohsweken waits for funding to deliver clean water to more people

Only nine percent of people living in the Six Nations of the Grand River have treated water connected to their homes. The other 91 per cent are drinking untreated water, mostly from a well system that some users say smells like sulphur.

Only nine percent of people living on Six Nations of the Grand River are hooked up to the town's water supply

In 2013 the community opened a water treatment plant outside Ohsweken that could treat water delivered to 27,000 people living in the community. But four years later and it's running a deficit and only 9 percent of the population, mostly in Ohsweken, have access to treated water. (istock Getty Images (DO NOT USE))

Four years after a multi-million dollar water treatment plant was built in the Six Nations of the Grand River community of Ohsweken, the public utility service is hoping to receive new federal funding to feed new lines of fresh drinking water into approximately 480 more homes.

But while the shovels are ready to go for the infrastructure project, the approximately $13 million from the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) hasn't arrived.

Michael Montour, Director of Public Works for Six Nations of the Grand River, has been waiting since March of this year and says the government's commitment to lift boil water advisories in other first nations community may put their project plans lower on the priority list.

"They're focussed only on the Prime Minister's commitment for the five-year boil water advisory, said Montour.

"We're all shovel-ready: meaning we've had the extension designed, gone through INAC's approval processes, but now we're just waiting for the money and we're basically being told we're not a priority because we don't have a Health Canada boil advisory imposed on us."

'Picture of success.'

In 2013 the community opened a water treatment plant outside Ohsweken that could treat water for 27,000 people living in the community. Michael Montour describes it as "a picture of success."

But four years later only nine percent of the population, mostly in Ohsweken, have access to treated water. And the project is running a deficit.

"We run about a half-a-million dollar deficit," he said, "to treat and distribute the potable water that we do, to keep our people trained and to employ the certified officers that we do. And ...  to make sure that we comply with any federal or provincial laws."

The other 91 per cent of residents not on the treated water line get their water through various methods. Most of them get their water delivered: they'll fill untreated water from the public utility into a plastic unit known as a polytank on their truck and take it home, or get it from the area's system of wells.

Some people CBC Kitchener-Waterloo spoke to describe the well water as smelling like sulphur.

Buying water

Joanne Battersby won't touch the well water.

She lives in Cayuga on the Six Nations of the Grand Reserve, and tells CBC she buys bottled water because the water from the well system she is on is "undrinkable" and burns her skin when she bathes in it.

"It costs me $70.00 a month to buy [bottled] water and luckily — since I'm a senior — for a dollar each the fellows will carry it to my house.

"When I go shopping I see Six Nations members in Hagersville or Brantford ... always pulling at least one cartful jammed right to the top with cases of individual water."

A health report found 80 per cent of the wells tested were deemed contaminated, but the testing was local and fell outside the jurisdiction of Health Canada.

Service shortfall?

Sheri Longboat, assistant professor at the University of Guelph in the rural planning and development program, says because the First Nations community is under the jurisdiction and responsibility of the federal government, people aren't getting the same sort of municipal water services other communities would expect to have.

"Most provinces — such as in Ontario — water management and governance is a provincial responsibility with a strong robust management structure around how we provide safe drinking water to residents," said Longboat.

'There have been a number of efforts to do that under proposed legislation that may enact and address some of the regulatory challenges that exist from a previous lack of regulatory environment on First Nations to protect drinking water."

Longboat says the federal government five year plan may address the water problems, but she doesn't think it addresses the fundamental issues that have left many Indigenous towns without the infrastructure and services seen outside First Nations communities.