Zhiibaahaasing First Nation water operator wins national leadership award

A water operator in an Ontario First Nation is being nationally recognized for his hard work and dedication to his community. 

Jonathan Riberdy praised by chief for going 'above and beyond'

Jonathan Riberdy is the 2021 winner of the National First Nations Water Leadership Award given by Indigenous Services Canada. (Submitted by Jonathan Riberdy)

A water operator in an Ontario First Nation is being nationally recognized for his hard work and dedication to his community. 

Jonathan Riberdy has been awarded the 2021 National First Nations Water Leadership Award for his work to make safe and clean drinking water a reality for Zhiibaahaasing First Nation in Ontario. The water leadership award was created in 2018 by Indigenous Services Canada. 

Originally from Temagami First Nation, Riberdy, who is Algonquin, has lived and worked in Zhiibaahaasing for about 12 years. The community has been under a boil water advisory since 1992 and is currently using a temporary water plant in a sea can after damage to its water plant last year. 

Riberdy is nearly finished his training as the water plant supervisor after being asked by the community to take the job six years ago. Along with his training as a water operator, Riberdy also has training to drive heavy machinery and has a transportation licence. He is also the project manager for Swim Drink Fish Canada, and a director for the Aboriginal Water and Wastewater Association of Ontario. 

He said he is honoured for the recognition of his work. 

"I'm really humbled, to be honest," said Riberdy. 

"I follow the seven grandfather teachings. I have a lot of humility. I am very excited, and very happy that someone recognized the work that I'm doing." 

Zhiibaahaasing First Nation has been granted $2.9 million from the Green Infrastructure stream, a part of the joint federal and provincial Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) to help cost-share with the government for a new system and to lift the boil water advisory, Riberdy said. 

"That's something we're fighting to get off of right now, so that we can get a proper water treatment plant and distribution system. We're moving in the right direction with ISC right now," he said. 

"I have high hopes that we're going to get the money that we deserve, and build the system that we need. If we work as a team, we'll be good."

Praise from the community

Members of Riberdy's community say their water is in good hands.

"We're super proud of him," said band manager Bobbi-Sue Kells-Riberdy. 

"We're glad that he's our water operator, because he's taken his own time to ensure we do have clean drinking water. He's put in countless hours of overtime that he's never been compensated for."

Zhiibaahaasing First Nation chief Chief Irene Kells said Riberdy is a hard worker.

"I work closely with him, and I've seen where he's gone above and beyond," she said.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hadju spoke with Riberdy last week to deliver the news of the award. In a news release, she said "The expertise and commitment of water operators like Mr. Riberdy are vital in achieving our shared goal — ensuring that all First Nations communities have access to clean drinking water and maintaining strong water and wastewater infrastructure."

As part of the award, Riberdy will have a bursary in his name for $10,000 for First Nations individuals who are pursuing or continuing their career in the water and wastewater industry.


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.