Indigenous·Video

First Nations-owned water authority pitched to fix chronic drinking water issue

The Mi'kmaq and the Wolastoqiyik are pitching a First Nations owned water authority to the federal government and other First Nations.

Atlantic First Nations Water Authority would allow communities to set long-term plans for water infrastructure

Blue bottles have become synonymous with the decades-long poor water conditions for First Nations across Canada. (CBC)

Two Indigenous groups in the Atlantic region, the Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqiyik, are pitching a First Nations owned water authority to the federal government and First Nations.

"We want to be able, at the end of the day, to turn on the tap and drink a glass of water," said Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul, one of the three current board members for the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA).

"Some communities can't do that," she said. 

Paul said the water authority, the only one of its kind in the country, will ensure the same safe and consistent water service for the 15 of 34 communities from the region who have agreed to participate. 

If a water problem develops, communities are often unsure when, or if, the resources to fix it will come from the federal government, Paul said. 

'We want to be able, at the end of the day, to turn on the tap and drink a glass of water,' says Chief Andrea Paul of Pictou Landing First Nation. (David Gutnick/CBC)

"We are the ones that are going to be accountable for that. Not that [we aren't] already, but working as a team together, I think will make us that much stronger."

The utility, co-ordinated by the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs (APC-FNC) hired James Mackinnon as its interim chief operating officer in September. Mackinnon was the director of housing and infrastructure at APC-FNC, and had been focusing on the project for years.

"First and foremost, the water authority has been proposed for safe drinking water," Mackinnon said.

"Along with that is a strong component of self governance. It's the ability to break the government of Canada's funding cycle." 

Mackinnon said the authority will allow chiefs and band councils to set long term priorities for their water infrastructure, which is difficult to do with the current, year-by-year budgeting from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC).

Atlantic First Nations propose a water authority solution 8:00

Funding request not yet approved

In June, AFNWA submitted its business case to ISC, asking for $231 million over 25 years for capital investments and $11 million annually in operation and maintenance costs. Mackinnon said the request is "over and above" what's normally provided for these 15 communities. 

James Mackinnon, interim chief operating officer of the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority, says the proposed utility comes with a 'strong component of self governance.' (Nic Meloney/CBC)

According to ISC, the federal government spent $96.6 million on water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nations in the Atlantic region since 2015. 

"I think it's probably well established that First Nations water historically has been underfunded," Mackinnon said.

He said the additional investment will cover the cost of getting the current infrastructure up to an "acceptable quality." 

In an emailed statement, an ISC spokesperson said the department "is supportive of [the] initiative," and that, as mandated by its legislation, the department is working to "transfer the care, control and management of ISC programs" to Indigenous organizations. 

Mackinnon said ISC has not yet made a firm commitment on the proposal, but that he expects the process to move forward after the federal election.

About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.