Indigenous·CBC Investigates

This First Nation produces clean water. So why are so many residents afraid to drink it?

In some ways, Garden Hill First Nation in northern Manitoba is a success story. The community has no boil-water advisories. Its water treatment plant produces clean drinking water. So why do many residents refuse to drink their tap water? And why do others have no taps at all? CBC News investigates.

In Garden Hill First Nation, many residents don't trust their tap water, while others have no taps at all

When CBC News visited Garden Hill First Nation back in November, Andrew Flett was the assistant operator at the water treatment plant. It was his job to make sure the water produced at the plant was as clean as any drinking water in the country. He recently started a new job as a cargo driver. (Connie Walker/CBC)

As the assistant operator at the water treatment plant in Garden Hill First Nation in northern Manitoba, it was Andrew Flett's job to ensure there was clean drinking water for the community's 4,000 residents. Although he was still an apprentice, he was second-in-command and approached his work with meticulous care.

"There's no breaks, no holidays when it comes to this job," he said in November, as he carefully filled a tiny glass vial with tap water, the first step in his daily routine of testing chlorine levels. "It's 24/7, Monday to Friday, also on the weekends, 365 days of the year. People need clean drinking water."

Flett was confident that when the water left the plant it was as clean and drinkable as any you can find in Canada. Garden Hill has never had a long-term boil water advisory and even short-term advisories are rare.

Even so, like many Garden Hill residents, Flett and his family refuse to drink the water that comes out of their tap at home. They stopped in 2015 after everyone in the family got sick.

Flett's parents don't have plumbing in their home. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
CBC's Connie Walker explains to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti why many residents in Garden Hill First Nation still do not trust their tap water. 23:50

As is the case with many homes in Garden Hill, Flett's pipes aren't connected to the water treatment plant. Instead, his home draws water from a storage tank, or cistern, that relies on truck deliveries of water from the treatment plant.

"There's like a film that settles at the bottom of every tank. It's full of bacteria and you can get sick. It causes diarrhea, eating problems and all that," said Flett, who recently quit his job at the water treatment plant for a new post as a cargo driver.

"It was severe with my daughter and my wife because when they would eat they couldn't keep anything down. So I started boiling the water from our tap. They seemed fine after that."

But the challenges Flett faces every day to get clean water don't stop there. His parents are among hundreds in the community who don't have indoor plumbing. He makes several trips per week to the community water fountain to fill jugs of water for everyone in his family to drink and for his parents to wash themselves and do the dishes.

This is Garden Hill's community water fountain. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Ensuring that Indigenous communities have access to safe, clean, reliable drinking water is a key part of the federal government's promise for reconciliation. To that end, the Liberals pledged in 2016 to spend $1.8 billion over five years, most of it to address long-term boil-water advisories on reserves. About half the money has already been spent and 78 long-term advisories have been lifted.

However, none of it has come to Garden Hill to help people like Andrew Flett and his family. The community faces an array of challenges accessing clean water, including failed cisterns, slow water delivery and a lack of indoor plumbing in many homes.

But since there are no boil-water advisories and no urgent water-related health problems, the community doesn't qualify for an extra investment, the government says.

"They're producing clean water and the water is being delivered," said Michel Burrowes, a director in the Manitoba office of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC).

Dirty tanks, no pipes

Just half the homes in Garden Hill are connected to pipes that bring treated water directly from the water treatment plant. About 30 per cent rely on cisterns installed under or near the home.

Data obtained by CBC News shows that even if the water is clean when it's delivered, it often doesn't stay that way in a home's water tank.

Nearly one-third of the cisterns tested in Garden Hill didn't meet national standards for water safety.

A water truck driver fills up a family's cistern in Garden Hill. (CBC)

The failure rate for cisterns in other communities in the Island Lake region of northern Manitoba is especially high. In Wasagamack, a short boat ride across Island Lake, three-quarters of the cisterns tested in 2015-16 contained fecal bacteria, an indication the water could be contaminated with a variety of noxious germs such as E. coli.

Separate data also shows that, similar to Andrew Flett's parents, hundreds of Indigenous families across Canada face significant challenges accessing any source of clean water. Some 2,000 houses on reserves have no running water or indoor plumbing. Around 180 of those homes are in Garden Hill.

Maggie Flett's home has no plumbing. It doesn't qualify for a government-funded retrofit. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Ironically, Garden Hill and its sister reserves in the Island Lake region could be considered a success story in the battle to ensure a steady supply of safe, clean water for Indigenous communities.

The number of First Nations houses without indoor plumbing in Canada has dropped from 3,500 in 2007 to 2,034 in 2017. Much of the improvement has been in Manitoba, especially in the fly-in communities on Island Lake, about 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The federal government pumped money into water infrastructure on the reserves, including in Garden Hill, after an outbreak of H1N1 sickened dozens of people in 2009. The flu was so widespread in remote Manitoba First Nations that, at one point, Indigenous people made up two-thirds of all patients on respirators in the province.

Health officials blamed the outbreak on poor hygiene connected to a lack of indoor plumbing. At the time, half the homes in Garden Hill had no running water.

When the federal government sent dozens of body bags to the area, outraged community leaders travelled to Winnipeg to demand more appropriate action. The government apologized and said it had sent the bags by mistake.

Grand Chief David Harper poses outside of a federal government building after returning body bags in Winnipeg on Sept. 16, 2009. Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba wanted an explanation as to why some of the reserves hardest hit by swine flu that spring received dozens of body bags from Health Canada. (David Lipnowski/Canadian Press)

Two years later, the government started work on a $30-million project to install indoor plumbing in 769 Island Lake homes. In Garden Hill, 216 houses, or about 30 per cent of the homes on the reserve, were fitted with faucets and indoor toilets as well as cisterns and septic tanks.

The retrofits were seen as a temporary measure. Band leaders say they agreed to it because it was the fastest and least expensive way to bring modern amenities to more homes on the reserve.

'Sticky' water

The retrofits made a huge difference to Wallace Knott and his family, who live in a four-bedroom bungalow overlooking Island Lake.

Their house was built with faucets, sinks, a bathtub and a toilet but without pipes to connect those fixtures to a water source. For eight years, Knott hauled water in pails from a community fountain three kilometres away or from the lake at the bottom of his yard. With a new cistern and septic tank connected to the house, the family can turn on the taps to do laundry and everyday household cleaning.

But Knott and his family still face significant challenges getting safe, clean water. Like Andrew Flett and his family, they refuse to drink the water from their cistern. Knott says it smells bad and starts to feel "sticky" after a few days, so he keeps two separate 170-litre barrels of water in the kitchen, for drinking and cooking.

WATCH: Garden Hill resident Wallace Knott shows why his family doesn't drink their home's tap water.

Garden Hill resident Wallace Knott shows why he won't drink his tap water. 0:24

Annemieke Farenhorst, a University of Manitoba researcher who focuses on water issues in First Nations communities, says cisterns should be cleaned at least once a year to prevent bacteria from building up. Knott says he doesn't remember when his cistern was last cleaned.

Allan Little, Garden Hill's operations and maintenance manager, says the band doesn't have the money to clean cisterns regularly. In 2018, they cleaned about 100 of the community's 218 cisterns.

"We simply don't have enough funds to meet the demands of the community," he said.

Garden Hill's water problems multiply from there.

Madeline and Leslie Little live without running water and indoor plumbing in their home in Garden Hill First Nation. They keep water for drinking, cooking and cleaning in two 170-litre barrels in their kitchen. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

A community survey conducted by University of Manitoba students last summer found that nearly all the families with cisterns in Garden Hill have problems with their water.

The most common complaint was that water isn't delivered often enough to meet the needs of multiple families living in the same home. The community has just two water trucks. A third truck broke down several years ago, but because of funding shortfalls it has not been repaired.

For the Knotts, that means rationing water. They usually bathe just once a week. When the cistern does run dry, it can be several days before they get a refill.

"We even call ahead of time, but still there's so many people that want the water that the delivery people just can't keep up with everybody," Knott said.

When the water runs out, the toilet doesn't work, so the family resorts to using a slop pail instead. They empty the pail in an open garbage pit on their property.

Knott also has problems getting his septic tank emptied. It sometimes gets so full it backs up into the bathtub.

"I mean, it does get smelly. And what can you do?" he said. "It's bad."

The situation is even more difficult for Zachary Flett, 19, and his family. They are among the hundreds of people in Garden Hill who live without indoor plumbing.

Zachary Flett, 19, lives in a small home built of plywood, with no running water. He gets up at 6 a.m. every day to chop wood for the stove and makes frequent trips to the community water fountain two kilometres away to fill pails with water for drinking and washing. (Connie Walker/CBC)

Flett's home is one of around 180 in Garden Hill that didn't qualify for the water and sewer retrofit program. Band officials say most of those houses were so run down it would have been unsafe to install the electrical panels and wiring needed to heat and pump water.

Zachary Flett, a distant relative of former water plant employee Andrew Flett, grew up in a newer home connected to the reserve's water treatment plant. The community is short on housing — the band council estimates it needs at least 300 new homes to adequately house a growing population. So when Zachary Flett's house burned down 18 months ago, his family was forced to move into an uninsulated cabin built of plywood.

Flett says they did everything they could to repair it. But the house couldn't be wired and there was no way to install plumbing.

Now he gets up at 6 a.m. every day to chop wood for the stove. When someone needs the toilet, they either go to the outhouse or use a slop pail, discreetly tucked into a corner in the main living area. They make several trips a day to the community water fountain two kilometres away to fill pails with water for drinking and washing.

It takes a lot of effort for Zachary Flett to access water. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Zachary says that can be dangerous for his grandmother, Maggie Flett, especially in winter, because she could slip and fall on the ice that builds up around the fountain. For showers and to do laundry, they go to the health resources centre, where Maggie works.

 "We do try our best and we do try not to complain about it," Maggie said. "I just tell them to be happy wherever we are, you're with your family, and to be safe. Things will work out some day."

Andrew Flett, the former assistant water treatment plant operator, shares Maggie's stoicism, but his is tinged with more anger.

"What I think, like this is just my opinion, that the government threw all this funding [for the retrofit program] at us so you can shut us up," he said.

His house got a cistern and septic tank, but his parents' house didn't qualify for the retrofit program. They live in a 250-square-foot cabin next door, with no heat or electricity.

What's needed 

Flett says the community's water problems will persist unless the federal government increases funding to maintain and improve the community's infrastructure. He says funding to train people in the community to regularly clean cisterns — and to cover their salaries — would go a long way to ensuring a safe water supply.

Garden Hill maintenance manager Allan Little says the community also needs funding to train and pay tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians to repair problems as they arise.  

The band has also asked the government for permission to conduct a feasibility study to build a second water treatment plant and to connect most Garden Hill homes to pipes that would bring water directly from the plant. Chief Dino Flett, who is also a distant relative to Andrew and Zachary, says the federal government has not responded.

Chief Dino Flett says the federal government hasn't responded to the band's request for permission to conduct a feasibility study to build a second water treatment plant on the reserve. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Burrowes, the Indigenous Services Canada regional director in Manitoba, said he's not aware of such a request.

Officials with Indigenous Services Canada admit the formula that's currently used to calculate funding for operations and maintenance is outdated and inadequate. They say they're working with the Assembly of First Nations to come up with a new formula. But they say bands should have enough money to maintain and clean cisterns and that it's up to the band chief and council to make sure that happens.

Burrowes says the fact that some people are afraid to drink the water doesn't necessarily mean it's unsafe. Instead, he says, they may have based their decision on the fact there were problems in the past.

"There's a very visceral response to water quality, and once there's been a problem, you tend not to go back to it," he said. "They've sort of lost faith in the system."

'Our home'

For his part, Zachary Flett is trying to turn his grandmother's advice into action, in part by campaigning for a second community water fountain to give people easier access to fresh water.

"No matter how bad things are or how people look at it or view it, we choose to stay here," he said. "We choose to stay here not only because of the beauty, not only the history, but as a community, we choose to make this our home."

A view of Island Lake in northern Manitoba. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

— With files from Vera-Lynn Kubinec and Kristin Annable