Ground-breaking First Nations Water Authority takes first steps in Atlantic region

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority has appointed a First Nations board of directors from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Proposed utility to provide safe water for First Nations in the region

The water tower at Potlotek First Nation in Nova Scotia. (CBC)

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority has taken its first steps with the appointment of a First Nations board of directors from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. 

Plans for the new utility, co-ordinated by the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs (APC-FNC) have been underway for seven years amid numerous boil water orders in First Nations communities across the region. 

Executive director of APC-FNC John Paul said while the complex project has taken a while to co-ordinate, it now has momentum to make a substantial change to "systematic issues" being faced by Indigenous communities.

"The time was right to move in this direction," said Paul.

"We want to come to a common standard in the water authority that ensures every community has safe drinking water." 

The authority is aimed at relieving individual First Nations of the cost and management burdens for each of their separate waste and drinking water systems. The plan includes up to six "hubs" across Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqew territories in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island that will distribute clean water to localized facilities.

John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Paul said the model is unique in that it will incorporate the traditional values of these communities at every available opportunity. He said ensuring full ownership and operation by Indigenous Peoples is crucial, and was the vision from the beginning. 

"I think the most important part of this initiative is our ownership in water because our people fundamentally believe water is sacred; water is life," he said. 

In partnership with engineering, academic and Indigenous organizations, Paul said APC-FNC has developed a preliminary five-year business plan complete with governance and regulatory recommendations at an estimated cost of $25 million a year.

Paul said the group estimates the cost of the new water authority to be just over the amount already being invested into water infrastructure in individual communities, and said they are looking to all levels of government for further funding assistance on a 25-year plan.

'A logical approach'

The opportunity has been presented to every First Nations community in the region, and when in operation, Paul said, the authority could potentially serve as a model for every Indigenous community in Canada that's facing water woes. 

"It is a logical approach," he said.

"Look at it now, [and] you have 633 communities doing it across Canada versus a group coming together to manage it in a more efficient, collective manner." 

Dalhousie professor Graham Gagnon serves as a technical adviser for the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Graham Gagnon, a Dalhousie University professor and director of the Centre for Water Resources Studies, has served as a technical advisor on the water authority, examining water and wastewater management and quality across the region. 

He said ensuring proper standards in the communities' current water infrastructures is a complex task, but one that is necessary. 

"For example Glooscap [First Nation] actually has a very relatively sophisticated water treatment plant, but then it goes from there down to a less sophisticated distribution system. That's just the way funding sometimes plays out," Gagnon said. 

People in Potlotek First Nation are frustrated with brown water. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

Manganese and other contaminants have permeated the water supplies of communities like Potlotek First Nation for up to 30 years. Gagnon said contamination of this nature can impair brain development in children. 

"Certainly in non-Indigenous communities this wouldn't be wouldn't be tolerated," Gagnon said. 

'It's about time'

Potlotek First Nation Chief Wilbert Marshall, who's spoken strongly about the federal government's responsibility to fix the water issues, was appointed to the First Nations Water Authority's board of directors. He said "it's about time" the system was changed. 

"We just want to make sure that no other nations go through anything close to what we have," Marshall said.

"We think this is the right thing to do, and we're going to make sure it gets done right this time." 

Also appointed to the board of directors were: 

  • Chief Aaron Sock, Elispogtog First Nation in New Brunswick
  • Chief Matilda Ramjattan, Lennox Island First Nation on Prince Edward Island
  • Chief Andrea Paul, Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia

Breaking the mould

Over the near-decade of planning, many of the authority's governance and infrastructure elements were based on methods used by the Halifax Regional Municipality. 

Carl Yates, general manager of Halifax Water, has been working with APC-FNC and their partners to develop the new strategy. He said the group hopes to have the authority operational within a year, with the next step being to hire a chief executive officer. 

"What's going to make this work is to make sure that as many employees that currently work in the [First Nations] water and wastewater industry actually get transferred with the hard assets to this authority," he said.

"That puts it in a good spot to take the [First Nations] traditional values as well as the technical abilities."

The First Nations Water Authority's scale is roughly a 10th of the size of Halifax Water's largest operation, Yates said, but is intended to use the same cutting-edge technology and methods to ensure the water quality and distribution is up to snuff. 

Carl Yates holds the five-year plan for the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Halifax Water was awarded an APC-FNC contract in 2017 to help establish the authority's corporate structure and eventually the business plan, but Yates said the organization is also benefiting from seeing the development of the new scaled-down system. He called the new approach a learning opportunity for the rest of Canada. 

"I think one of the largest challenges is to break free from the current colonial model," he said.

"I think we can all recognize it hasn't worked [for First Nations communities] so it's time that we actually tip it on its head and really start fresh. If it works in Atlantic Canada I'm pretty confident this can be repeated right across the country in any of the First Nations communities in different regions." 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that Halifax Water offered consultation to the First Nations Water Authority for free. The organization was actually paid by APC-FNC for assistance in development stages in 2017.
    May 31, 2018 11:24 AM ET

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.