Atlantic First Nations create water utility, to be up and running by 2022

HALIFAX — Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada are creating their own utility to take charge of water systems in First Nations around the region.

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority is expected to be up and running independently by the spring of 2022, with a leadership team appointed by next April.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced today that the federal government will provide $2.5 million to assist in the formation of the agency, saying it will be the first Indigenous-owned and operated water authority in the country.

Indigenous communities in Canada currently pay 20 per cent of the operating and maintenance costs of their water and wastewater systems, with about 80 per cent of the operating funds provided by Indigenous Services Canada. The federal government also funds capital infrastructure.

Ottawa will continue to provide this funding, but management of the systems and the assets will shift to the First Nations water authority over the next two years.

Many communities, including Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton, have for decades struggled with inferior water quality, and have lobbied strongly for upgraded systems and more local control.

Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall, the first chair of the water authority, called Tuesday’s signing of a framework agreement a “historic day,” adding he expects Indigenous control of the systems will lead to improvements in operations.

“A lot of times government steps in and gives you no choice … But now, it’s going to be based on our communities’ (needs), the best experts in the field and the best water money can buy,” he said.

Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada have in the past been responsible to operate and maintain their own small systems, though some First Nations — such as Membertou in Cape Breton — have negotiated agreements with neighbouring municipalities to provide service.

To date, 15 communities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island— including all of the larger First Nations in the region — are part of the framework agreement announced Tuesday. Others, including communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, may join in the future.

Miller called the authority a major step forward towards greater First Nations-led delivery of essential services, describing the East Coast model as one his department would be eager to see spread across the country.

Carl Yates, the former head of Halifax Water, will be the interim chief executive of the new authority, and will lead its setup and initial planning.

He said the water authority will assume ownership of the water systems and put together a business plan that will “bring them up to the highest standards in the land.”

Yates and Marshall said the authority will use expertise from non-Indigenous consultants and experts, but the goal is to hire local Indigenous people to work for the utility and for Indigenous leadership to take charge in the years to come.

“We have a clear mandate to hire a First Nations workforce to the fullest extent possible,” Yates said.

Marshall’s Potlotek community has repeatedly faced water quality issues.

The Mi’kmaq community of about 750 people at the southern end of Bras d’Or Lake — formerly known as Chapel Island First Nation — received funding from Indigenous Services Canada to build a new water treatment plant after repeated boil water advisories in recent years.

The plant is now in its commissioning phase, but Marshall said if the water authority had been in place, he believes the plant would have been up and operating sooner.

“Eventually we’re going to have our own people doing this … and hopefully we’ll be self-sufficient,” he said.

The concept of a joint Indigenous authority emerged after studies prepared by Dalhousie University, Halifax Water and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat, Yates said.

The Atlantic Policy Congress includes representatives from the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Innu chiefs, nations and communities, and it is governed by a board of directors comprised of the chiefs.

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