After 14 years, Middle River celebrates official end to boil water advisory

In front of a new water treatment plant, a group of Tl'azt'en First Nation members stand together alongside consultants, academics and an engineer from Indigenous Services Canada ready to cut the ribbon.

Remote northern B.C. community hopes more people will move home now that the water is safe to drink

To mark the end of a long-term boil water advisory, the sign at the entrance to Middle River in northern B.C., was cut down with a chainsaw. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In front of a new water treatment plant, a group of Tl'azt'en First Nation members stand together alongside consultants, academics and an engineer from Indigenous Services Canada ready to cut the ribbon.

It's a celebration to mark the return of safe drinking water to this remote northern B.C. community that has been living under a long-term boil water advisory for 14 years. People have flown and driven in from places like Prince George, B.C., Vancouver and the surrounding Tl'azt'en communities to mark this occasion.

Middle River is among the smallest of the nation's communities and currently has nine full-time residents, though the population fluctuates throughout the year. 

Getting the appropriate water treatment plant designed and built took years of planning on the part of the community, Indigenous Services Canada, the RES'EAU-WaterNET team from the University of British Columbia and other contracted partners.  

With clean water flowing once again, the nation's leadership invited everyone involved to come back to Middle River — located about 270 kilometres northwest of Prince George — so the advisory could be formally lifted.  

Standing together, snow falling all around them, a spool of red ribbon is unravelled and pulled taut.

Water operator Gammale Joseph and Tl'azt'en chief Beverly John stand in the middle of the group, holding a pair of scissors, and then... snip.

The group cheers and claps. There are hugs.

"Everybody wants a piece of this ribbon?" asked Ron Winser, the nation's public works manager.

One by one, people lined up to take their own small piece of the red ribbon. It took a whole team of people to find the appropriate solution for getting clean water into the homes here.

​"The new symbol of clean water," said Winser, jokingly.

It's a symbolic day, marking the end of a long journey to get clean drinking water in Middle River again, sparking excitement among community members for what comes next.

"It's pretty exciting to have all this happen, my brother Gammale's been working on this a long time," said Barbara Joseph, one of the few people who still live in the community year-round.

She's hoping the clean water will bring more people home full-time.

'We can have real community again'

The population of Middle River, which many locals refer to by its Dakelh name Dzitl'lainli, swells and shrinks depending on the time of year. During hunting season, Christmas, and summer, it's much busier.

Now, in mid-December, there are eight or nine people living here. The community has 12 houses all located along the bank of the river just before it flows out into Trembleur Lake.

Joseph said many factors contributed to people leaving over the years, but she thinks the lack of safe drinking water is likely a factor. She said at times, when there have been many people in the community, they've run out of clean water.

For more than a decade, drinking water was trucked in from the nearest town, Fort St. James, which takes more than a hour by car. Much of that drive is along an active logging road.

Now that the treatment plant is up and running, Gammale Joseph hopes more community members will take that logging road to move home.

"I'm hoping that all our houses are filled up again and we can have kids back here and can have our school back running again and we can have real community again, that's my goal," he said.

Tl'azt'en Nation Chief Beverly John cuts off pieces of ribbon from the water ceremony for people to take home. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Sitting together in the building that used to be the community's school, people from the nation and those who've had a part in get a treatment plant built, shared a home cooked meal: turkey, ham, stuffing, salad, desserts.

"I see this as a real opportunity booster here for the Middle River community because it changes the whole landscape I think," Chief Beverly John told those in the room.

"I think the bottom line for me is that this water is safe to drink. You could use it to make your morning coffee, that was never even thought of before," she said.

A new chapter

Afterward, people milled about taking photos, chatting outside in the snow or inside the water treatment plant.  

Then, the sound of a chainsaw.

The celebration to formally lift the boil water advisory started with a home cooked meal in the community's school building. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

It was time to take down the sign that was a constant reminder to everyone in Middle River that the water was not safe to drink. For more than a decade, the sign has been the first thing people see when they drive into the community.

"All tap water used for human consumption should be boiled for at least one minute," it reads, in part.

Over the buzz of the chainsaw people huddled together a few metres away and pulled out their cell phones and cameras.

 As the sign came down, sawdust covering the snow, people again clapped and cheered.

"It's great to see it down," said Gammale, adding that they already have a new sign to put up in its place.

"It's welcoming people back."