Indigenous

First Nations-led water authority signs agreement with federal government

Atlantic region First Nations Chiefs and Indigenous Services Canada have signed a framework agreement on a water utility that will oversee the drinking water and wastewater operations for over half of the First Nations population in the region. 

Decades of water issues in Indigenous communities a result of systemic racism, says federal minister

Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation in N.S. is one of the water authority's board members.

Atlantic region First Nations Chiefs and Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) have signed a framework agreement on a ground-breaking water utility that will oversee the drinking water and wastewater operations for over half of the First Nations population in the region. 

The agreement will transfer control and management of water and wastewater services for 15 Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqey communities from ISC to a single First Nations-led organization, and comes with a $2.5 million federal investment to get the water authority started on recruitment, training of staff and other operational costs.

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA) will collaborate on services with:

  • Acadian First Nation, N.S.
  • Eskasoni First Nation, N.S.
  • Glooscap First Nation, N.S.
  • Sipekne'katik First Nation, N.S.
  • Membertou First Nation, N.S.
  • MillbrookFirst Nation, N.S.
  • Paqtnkek First Nation, N.S.
  • Pictou Landing First Nation, N.S.
  • Potlotek First Nation, N.S.
  • Eel River Bar First Nation, N.B.
  • Oromocto First Nation, N.B.
  • Elsipogtog First Nation, N.B.
  • Tobique First Nation, N.B.
  • Abegweit First Nation, P.E.I.
  • Lennox Island First Nation, P.E.I.

Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation, in N.S. is one of the water authority's board members.

"With [the AFNWA] we got to play a big part in picking out the best plan for our community," he said.

"A lot of times, the government steps in and they give you no choice, you [have] to do what they say." 

A step in self-determination

When developing plans for the water authority in 2018, officials with the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs said a priority was to address the methods by which the federal government distributes funding — on a project-by-project, year-by-year basis. In some situations, First Nations are required to compete for the same funding. 

The water authority is an example of making positive changes to public health outcomes for Indigenous communities in the "right way," said ISC Minister Marc Miller.

Potlotek began construction on a new water treatment facility in 2018 after 40 years of dealing with brown, smelly water unfit for drinking. (CBC)

"This is really a step along the process of self-determination ensuring that people that know best their communities are able to take the action, with the resources that they need to act."

He acknowledged systemic racism contributes to the lack of access to clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities. 

"If you were to study it in the past, you would find that some of it is a result of overt racism," said Miller. 

"You would also find the corresponding systemic racism that has created structures, institutions that have resulted in the public health outcomes including lack of access to clean water." 

Miller said the federal government will face "real challenges" to provide funding for basic health needs for First Nations. He said ISC would consider funding similar models for First Nations in other regions, but that ultimately, the decisions on how First Nations improve their access to water are to be made by the communities themselves. 

AFNWA submitted its business case to ISC in June 2019, asking for $231 million over 25 years for capital investments and $11 million annually in operation and maintenance costs.

'If you were to study it in the past, you would find that some of it is a result of overt racism,' says Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller of problems with access to clean water. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Tuesday's announcement didn't say how much funding the federal government will provide the authority beyond the $2.5 million start-up funding. The framework agreement "sets the table" to figure that out, said the AFNWA's interim chief operating officer, James MacKinnon.

"Part of the work we're doing on the next two years is to produce that roadmap for sustainable funding," said Carl Yates, the former general manager of Halifax Water, who was appointed by First Nations chiefs as interim chief executive officer of the water authority.

Yates said the authority will now begin negotiations about funding and operational details with ISC. He said some Canadian municipalities have been able to secure funding deals that can last up to 30 years, which is a goal for the ANFWA. 

"[ISC] has shown commitment to this framework agreement. This is the most I've seen to date and they're certainly staring us in the eyes," Yates said. 

"The [First Nations] are tired of seeing the same spin. They want to get out of this gamble for money." 

Yates and MacKinnon will step down from the interim roles when Indigenous candidates have been hired. Yates said the recruitment process has already begun and expects senior management roles to be filled by April 2021. 

As part of developing the model for the water authority, "constructive" feedback was taken from technical service providers in other provinces, some of which provide water service to First Nations in northern Ontario, Yates said.

About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqi 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.

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