Feds commitment to Onedia water supply met with hope and uncertainty
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu hopes the deal will be signed this spring
Monday's announcement that the federal government intends to pay for an 18-kilometre pipeline extension to bring clean drinking water to Oneida Nation of the Thames earned a mixed response from leadership in the Indigenous community.
In an interview on London Morning, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the federal government is committed to paying for the pipeline, but was not firm on a dollar figure or precise about the project's timeline.
"We will be there for the Oneida Nation," she said. "We're working out the details of how the funding will flow, but I want to reiterate the commitment of the government is that we will be there financially to support this work to completion."
Speaking later Monday on Afternoon Drive, Oneida Councillor Brandon Doxtator said he's happy to hear the government affirm its intention to fund the project, but feels some key details remain missing.
"I'm really excited to hear the minister commit to coming to the table and working with us, but notice we didn't hear a commitment specifically to address the full funding, so that was my concern," he said.
The project comes with an early estimated cost of $57 million, a figure that includes extending the pipeline 18 kilometres from the nearest connection point near Mt. Brydges to Onedia and upgrading the outdated water distribution system in the community of 2,000 people.
Oneida has been under a boil water advisory since September 2019.
"I cannot commit to a specific dollar number," said Hajdu. "Those negotiations are still underway with the community but I can tell you that we will be there to complete this work to ensure that people have access to fresh water."
Doxtator points out that Hajdu didn't mention another crucial aspect of the water system upgrade: Adding fire hydrants to improve fire protection. There are only a few hydrants in the community, which lost five members of one family to a tragic house fire in 2016.
"It's a feeling of uncertainly," said Doxtator in response to Hajdu's comments. "In the months of negotiations that have gone on, we shouldn't be negotiating for our children, our elders, to have this basic human right for their health and safety."
Hajdu would only say that the funding agreement should be finalized this spring, and construction will start "as soon as possible" afterwards.
"Ultimately, none of these builds are easy, so the understanding is that it might take up to 20 months to implement," she said. "But the sooner we get started, the sooner the Oneida people will have water coming out of their taps that they can drink."
And although there is not yet a firm funding commitment, a page on the Indigenous Services Ministry's website says "Design of a connection to an existing municipal water system is expected to begin early in 2023 and construction is anticipated to begin in spring 2023."
Oneida leaders have negotiated a water supply agreement with the Lake Huron Primary Water Supply System. It's the same entity that supplies treated Lake Huron drinking water to municipalities across much of southwestern Ontario, including north London.
Oneida Nation and Lake Huron supply have signed the agreement, the only missing signatory is the federal government, but that would also require the funding.
"It's critically important to the function of a community that people can turn on the tap and anticipate that the water coming out is drinkable," said Hajdu.
"I'm not an expert in construction but it looks like it will take a couple of months, if not a couple of years to build this infrastructure project," she said. "However the good news is that when it's done it will be a brand new system that's modern that's state-of the art that will produce safe water for drinking."