Sudbury

Millions in federal funding needed to get hundreds in Batchewana off bottled water

The longest standing First Nation water advisory in the northeast could soon be lifted. Batchewana First Nation on Lake Superior feels it is close to landing the funding needed to build new water treatment plants, after a decade of supplying hundreds of people with bottled water.

Well water for about 200 people in the Goulais Mission community is contaminated with uranium

Murwa Case Boyer smudges the bottled water that is delivered to his home in the Goulais Mission community of Batchewana First Nation on Lake Superior. (Erik White/CBC)

Out his kitchen window, Murwa Case Boyer can see Lake Superior, where his family used to fill buckets to carry back up the wooded hill to their home.

Right below that window, he waves a smudge fire over four five-gallon jugs of water that Batchewana First Nation delivers every week.

The 45-year-old, like the 200 other people in the Goulais Mission community, haven't been able to drink the water out of their tap for over a decade because of potentially dangerous levels of uranium.

"You have a tap running water, but you can't drink it," says Case Boyer.

"What about my showers? when I'm giving my little guys a bath? I got a pimple, so an open little cut. A little kid scraped his knee. He's got to sit in uranium water in the bath tub."

About a quarter of the 1,500 people who live in Batchewana First Nation, including the lakeside communities of Goulais Mission and Batchewana Village, can't drink the water that comes out of their tap.

Case Boyer says he and his neighbours talked about it constantly when the contamination was first discovered and he thought about it every day, but he says that has faded away over time.

"It's been so long no that you don't really think about it like you used to any more. It's just like 'OK, they're working on it, they're getting on it,'" he says.

"But they don't care. They really don't."

Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers has been working for years to get funding for treatment plants that would draw from Lake Superior and get hundreds of people off bottled water. (Erik White/CBC )

Chief Dean Sayers says Batchewana First Nation has spent over a million dollars on bottled water over the last 10 years.

And he has spent much of that time chasing government officials around Ottawa, trying to land funding for water treatment systems for three distinct areas of his community, expected to cost between $7 and 10 million.

Sayers thinks he's close to getting a cheque and Indigenous Services Canada confirms it is reviewing the feasibility study Batchewana prepared and a meeting to discuss it is scheduled for later this month. 

The chief is also asking for operating funding to make sure the plants continue to run into the future.

Sayers feels that instead of constantly lobbying for funding, First Nations should automatically get a cut of the taxes collected from resource industries, like mining and forestry.

"The intent of the treaty was to enjoy the same quality of life. And it's not there," he says.

Currently Batchewana doesn't own any of its own water infrastructure, as citizens are either on wells or in the Rankin section of the First Nation where most homes are connected to the City of Sault Ste. Marie's system and people pay water bills to the municipal utility.

But Sayers says he doesn't believe First Nations should have to pay to access water in their own territory.

"We believe the crown has to fulfil the obligation, not our people. Our people are barely managing as it is."

University of Winnipeg economics professor Melanie O'Gorman says the federal government and first nations need to trust each other before the water crisis can be solved. (istock Getty Images (DO NOT USE))

Melanie O'Gorman, an economics professor at the University of Winnipeg who has studied the water crisis on Canadian First Nations, says its very rare for on reserve residents to pay water bills.

She says most communities run into trouble because they are too small and isolated to be able to cover the 20 per cent of the bill for new water infrastructure that the federal government requires of first nations or can't cover the ongoing maintenance costs.

"It does boil down to money," says O'Gorman.

She feels that once and if the estimated $4.7 billion is invested to bring Indigenous communities into line with the services available in towns and cities, the answer will be giving individual First Nations or regional governments like tribal councils the power to oversee and distribute infrastructure funding.

But O'Gorman says the key will be for the Canadian and Indigenous governments to work together on solving the problem.

"It's about trust. Trust both ways," she says. 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca