Indigenous led program helps improve water in Ontario First Nations communities

More than 20 First Nations across Ontario are taking part in a new project aimed at improving the drinking water standard in their communities.

The project is funded by the federal government and administered by the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation.

The Indigenous-led corporation says it will provide on-site training to operators of water treatment facilities located in the 22 participating First Nations.

Glen Goodman, the corporation’s director of engineering and infrastructure services, says the goal is to break the cycle of First Nations having to wait for critical failure of their water treatment facilities to get the resources they need.

“In the industry it’s called breakdown maintenance, meaning money isn’t invested into the facilities, until there’s a catastrophic failure of the equipment,” said Goodman, who notes federal funding levels for the facilities have not been raised in the decades he’s worked for the corporation.

“Which isn’t the way things should be done from my perspective, and it’s not common practice in private industry or municipal settings anywhere in Canada.”

According to Indigenous Services Canada, there are 12 water and wastewater hubs in Ontario, including the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation, serving approximately 90 First Nation communities.

The 22 communities participating in the new project are smaller, with fewer than 5,000 residents and are not administered by a larger tribal council.

Under the program, certified trainers are sent to First Nations territories to learn about the issues local operators are dealing with at their facilities. The trainers help the operators assess the systems and give them the tools and resources necessary to monitor the equipment, water quality levels, and provide updates to the corporation, tribal leaders and other authorities.

If a water treatment facility in the program is in danger, engineers who are familiar with those systems are dispatched to assess the problem.

Goodman said the program is designed to make an unfair system more equitable.

“These individuals were handed over the keys to brand new water treatment plants and expected to be able to follow the rules and regulations of the Ontario water-drinking act and that’s just impossible,” Goodman said.

Municipal water treatment operators have apprenticeship programs but First Nations typically do not because of fewer revenue streams for band councils, he said.

As an example of how unfair the system is, Goodman said that one operator the corporation works with is maintaining two water treatment plants and three well systems by himself, where a municipality would have at least five people looking after comparable facilities.

Most Indigenous water treatment operators are paid minimum wage, much less than someone with similar responsibilities would be paid by a municipality, a recent report found.

“Can you imagine the stress that’s placed on them?” said Goodman, who is based in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Melanie Debassige, the corporation’s executive director, said that creating trust was necessary to entering into agreements with the program’s participating communities.

“It goes back to ongoing reconciliation, that nation-to-nation relationship,” said Debassige, who is also on the board of Reconciliation Canada.

Debassige said that for the program to truly succeed it needs more than the one year of funding currently in place. She hopes that when she reapplies for funding, the program’s success will warrant a longer financial commitment from the federal government.

“You can’t just say you’re going to do this for one year and expect the water advisories to be lifted,” said Debassige, who is based in Brantford, Ont., and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Goodman and Debassige agree that part of the program’s success is that band council leaders and operators are more likely to trust the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation because it got its mandate from the Ontario Chiefs in Assembly, it’s a non-profit organization, and its staff is predominantly Indigenous.

“The trepidation of First Nations, just in general, because of colonialism, it’s something unfortunately that we’re still dealing with today,” said Goodman.

To that end, the program has trainers that speak Ojibwa, Cree, and French, although so far all instruction has been delivered in English.

Debassige said on-site training has been very useful for the local operators.

“A lot of these operators are young, they have young families, there’s only one operator in the community,” said Debassige. “How can they possibly leave for a week?”

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