Bad water: Innovative solution for remote northern Ontario First Nations

Three northern Ontario First Nations have managed to stop boil water advisories in their communities since May because of access to a new real-time water quality monitoring system.

'We can make a huge difference' if we invest in training people, says Safe Water Project's Barry Strachan

The Safe Water project provides the technology and support to respond to drinking water issues immediately. Photo: Barry Strachan (third from left), Johnny Miles, Dennis Big George, and Eric Morris inside water plant in Fort Severn. (Keewaytinook Okimakanak)

Three northern Ontario First Nations have managed to stop boil water advisories in their communities since May because of access to a new real-time water quality monitoring system. 

Deer Lake, Fort Severn, and Poplar Hill First Nations have all spent close to 1,000 days on a boil water advisory in the past decade.

"Historically, what's happened, is there's a time delay. When you take a [water] sample, analyse it and get the results to those that can do things about it, it can often mean people are at high risks for a [longer] period of time,"  said Barry Strachan, the lead on the Safe Water Project.

Strachan says that outdated process often lead to boil water advisories and do not consume orders. The Safe Water project provides the technology and support to respond immediately to potential problems.

"We get alerts of adverse water quality events immediately as they happen and it allows us to [advise] or actually attend the situation and fix it in short order," said Strachan.

The Safe Water Project, located in Dryden, Ontario, is a initiative of Keewaytinook Okimakanak: Northern Chiefs Council (K.O.) and Dryden Centre of Excellence.

The pilot started six months ago, with a promise of one year of funding. 

New concept for First Nations

The real-time monitoring system is one of three components of the project. It also provides qualified staff, who are always accessible to trainees, even when they are back in their home communities.

Strachan says communities have 24/7 access to two technicians in Dryden. If an operator sends an alert, the details of the problem are automatically sent via cellphone.

The key to the program is the certification operators get through the province of Ontario, which allows them to work anywhere in Canada (aside from Quebec because it has different standards).

He says for far too long, operators just haven't had the "academic background." 

"If we invest in the people who are running the plants, we can make a huge difference," said Strachan. 

A recent CBC News investigation revealed 20 reserves across the country have had a drinking water advisory (DWA) longer than 10 years.

Two K.O. communities have gone more than 13 years with bad water. North Spirit Lake ranks ninth in the country with a total of 4,900 days under a boil water advisory. Deer Lake finishes tenth with 4,808 days.

There are a variety of reasons that First Nations have drinking water advisories. In some instances the infrastructure is in place, but there isn't someone on site with the proper training to respond 

So far this year, 14 operators from the K.O. region have traveled down to Dryden to take the training.

New-found pride

Trainee Nico Suggashie spends his days looking for contaminants in the Poplar Hill First Nation water supply.

"I take samples at the plant and at typical destinations like the band office, clinic or the school," he said.  

That's how he helped his community avoid a boil water advisory recently.

Suggashie was 19 when he graduated high school. For nearly four years, he struggled to find a job.

"I used to just stay home all the time ... there are not many jobs here," Suggashie said, admitting he became withdrawn and depressed.
Nico Suggashie is training to become a certified drinking water technician in his home community of Poplar Hill. (Nico Suggashie )

That changed for him late last year when he started filling in at the water plant in his community. Now it's lead the 23-year-old to a career he enjoys. 

Once the questions about the water system begin Suggashie's confidence quickly builds.

"We have two Zenon water membrane tanks," he said about the equipment he works with in Poplar Hill.  

"There have been some issues with the plant itself, the processes, but they get fixed rather quickly because they [technicians in Dryden] help us … to respond when the water is contaminated. We [also] call the medical officer of health and Spilled Action Centre."

Through the pilot project, Suggashie completed the components for drinking water operator class one. On Oct. 30, he writes his final exam. 

He's confident he will do well though because, when he's not at work, he spends his free time studying at home. When he passes, Suggashie will be certified by the province of Ontario.

"Pride" and "value".are feelings Suggashie admits to feeling for the first time in his life.

Now, he's focused on getting his class two certification with the centre.

14 communities interested

Strachan admits the project will not solve all water problems for First Nations.

"I wouldn't say [the problem] will fully go away but we can have an impact. There are some situations where it is necessary for boil water advisories to remain because the equipment is outdated and quality of water is not safe," Strachan said.

Although AANDC hasn't committed any additional funding, Strachan remains hopeful.

"I have requests from three tribal councils to join our program. So I am hoping to use that as leverage to convince them that they just can't abandon this."

That could mean additional operators becoming certified in another 14 First Nations. But that's only if Strachan can secure funding beyond March 31, 2016.

Aboriginal Affairs has not yet committed to another year of funding. In an email statement, a spokesperson said the government agency will review the program closer to the completion date and decide where to go from there.  

About the Author

Tiar Wilson was raised in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Manitoba. She's reported for APTN National News, CBC Winnipeg, and CBC North. Tiar is also involved with CBC's database of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and continues to share the stories of these women, their families and communities. She's currently reporting for CBC Aboriginal. @yourpaltiar.