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November-December 2010

Why First Nations struggle with some of the country’s dirtiest water

Ashly Dyck

A Canadian Auto Workers volunteer helps install a new wellhead in Little Salmon Carmacks in 2007. Photo courtesy CAW.

A Canadian Auto Workers volunteer helps install a new wellhead in Little Salmon Carmacks in 2007. Photo courtesy CAW.

If you were to turn on a tap in the First Nation of Little Salmon Carmacks, Yukon, your cup might run over with gasoline, fecal matter, and worse (yes, there’s worse). It’s been this way for years, at least going as far back as 1991—the first year of comprehensive water testing.

The problems in Little Salmon Carmacks are emblematic of water problems in many First Nation communities across Canada. Drinking water not fit for human consumption has been, and continues to be, endemic in First Nation communities. For northern First Nations problems are made worse by systemic issues rooted deeply in the structure of our government; caught in a jurisdictional no-man’s-land between Indian and Northern Affairs, the territorial governments, and other government departments charged with funding infrastructure and assisting First Nations, their cases get shuffled from one department to another until they are finally dropped.

The Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation is situated next to the non-First Nation municipality of Carmacks, approximately 180 kilometres north of Whitehorse. The self-governing community, home to 400 people, once had two large wells serving the entire community but, as standards were updated, one was declared too dangerous to use and closed. The remaining well serves 96 people; everyone else has to rely on their own, individual wells, each of which provides water to an average of three people.

The village has been on the same boil water advisory since January 2006, though temporary advisories have been issued to certain areas of the town since 2001, and some individual wells have been reporting E. coli and coliform contamination since 1991.

Even though the federal government has spent nearly $1 million on studies, and improvements to well water testing, treatment infrastructure, and operator training, the problems in Little Salmon Carmacks are not clearing up. Government solutions have not dealt with the central causes of contamination, and have proved to be no more than expensive Band-Aids. Disregarding the results of numerous studies it has funded to investigate the root causes of the community’s water problems, the government seems willing to only fund short-term solutions, such as treating the contaminated water with chlorine.

One government funded study notes that “of particular concern are the positive [bacteriological] results for wells which have had their well boxes upgraded and cleaned and wells shock chlorinated.” In particular, it says that from 1991 until the study was conducted in 2004, “positive bacteriological contamination has been reported for 36% of residential wells over the period of record, with 22% reporting contamination within the last year.” Studies have been clear as to why contamination keeps coming back: poorly constructed individual wells are easy to contaminate and hard to maintain. According to a 2008 report, most of the wells in Little Salmon Carmacks are too shallow, too close to septic tanks, and are drilled in sandy, permeable soil. The well heads are also located underground, in pits that let in surface water, which then stagnates and causes bacterial contamination.

Rodent feces, animal remains, and fuel spills also become trapped in the well pits, and when water levels rise, either from rain or spring run-off, the toxic cocktail overflows first into wells and then out of taps. These same wells were built by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada—some of them as recently as the ’90s—who now refuses to maintain them. Neither the federal nor the territorial government will fund repairs or upgrades to wells serving fewer than five people; both levels of government say that this is the responsibility of homeowners. The case continues to circulate INAC internally in a game of bureaucratic hot potato that has left the community in purgatory. Even more frustrating is the fact that the solution, pointed to even by government funded studies, is completely clear: a single pipe system—one big well, with a pipeline servicing most homes in the village—is described as the best and most cost-effective long-term solution to the village’s water problems. But no government department or funding program has accepted the community’s proposals to construct one.

An INAC spokesperson said that the single pipe system is “not considered cost effective to construct and maintain over the long term.” But this directly contradicts an INAC funded study conducted just one year earlier, which concluded that a single pipe system would produce cleaner, safer water—since the water can be treated and monitored from a single, central location—and would incur lower long-term maintenance costs.

Even the ministry’s own statistics are suspect. INAC keeps a database of water quality in First Nation communities, rating water as being at high, medium, or low risk for contamination. After a 2002 study of communities across Canada, Little Salmon Carmacks’s water was rated “high risk.” In 2006, INAC officials downgraded it to “medium risk,” citing new evaluations from 2003 and 2004, which Chief Skookum says never took place. One former INAC employee, who helped develop the database, stated that officials modified the Little Salmon Carmacks rating “without stepping foot” in the community.

In 2007, INAC proudly announced that “in the past 12 months the number of high risk water systems in First Nations communities has been reduced from 193 to 97.” That number has since been reduced to 49. The problem is not simply that the ministry appears to be moving the goalposts for the sake of public relations; a “high-risk” rating automatically obliges the federal government to evaluate water systems and fund repairs. Downgrade the rating, and that financial commitment vanishes, though the problem does not.

In Little Salmon Carmacks, the government’s lack of serious action proved nearly fatal. In a December 2005 community meeting at which government and First Nation representatives were present, the then Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health—a territorial government official charged with issuing boil water orders—said, “I am confident that the water is not going to cause immediate health problems … I am convinced that the level of anxiety regarding the wells is too high.” Less than four weeks later, Elder Johnny Sam was airlifted to a Vancouver hospital for treatment of a bacterial infection so severe he had to remain there for four and a half months. His doctors linked his illness to his water consumption, and the First Nation issued its own boil water advisory on January 9, 2006.

“Someone just about died,” said Chief Skookum, who issued the 2006 advisory. “The government has got to show more effort in showing that they can step in and help with the cause and communicate— there’s not much of that at all.”

Chief Skookum isn’t the only one thinking that. A 2005 report by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) cited lack of government responsibility as a systemic problem directly related to the quality and safety of drinking water for First Nation communities. The CESD recommended that a new regulatory body be created to address the crisis. The government has acknowledged the problem but the steps it is taking have not won the support of Indigenous groups.

On May 26, 2010 the government introduced Bill S-11 in the federal Senate. The proposed legislation would set up a regulatory framework with jurisdictional clarity responsible for setting appropriate standards for the treatment and disposal of water. In its current incarnation, however, it applies only to reservations and not to self-governing nations (like Little Salmon Carmacks), although communities could opt in.

Critics argue that without a corresponding financial commitment, many First Nation communities will lack the resources to meet these guidelines, and fear they could be penalized for it. Irving Leblanc, the acting director of housing and infrastructure for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), says that “by pushing this legislation forward, the government is setting up First Nations for failure.” He adds, “There’s been no consultation done on this bill.” Though the government has made some effort to discuss the bill with First Nations, many feel that their views and opinions were not heard, much less incorporated into the legislation.

In the meantime, private volunteers have proved to be more effective than the ministry that’s actually responsible for ensuring water quality in First Nation communities. In 2007 Little Salmon Carmacks got in touch with the AFN which, in turn, proposed a well revitalization project to the Canadian Autoworkers union. In May of 2008 CAW members arrived for their first of two summers helping the community upgrade and repair its water infrastructure.

The volunteers—skilled tradespeople, most from Ontario—extended the wells a metre above ground and put caps on them so only well water could enter. This altered the structure of the wells more drastically than previous repairs, elevating and sealing off the once festering, below ground well heads and well boxes. The volunteers also installed heater cables to prevent pipes from freezing in the winter and controllers to maximize energy efficiency. The project was initially supposed to take only one summer. However, at the end of their six weeks of work, only half of the intended 57 wells had been repaired. The union decided to extend the project and volunteers returned to the Yukon the following summer to finish what they started.

Mark McGregor, a millwright who works in Brampton, Ontario, and one of the volunteers during the second summer, says seeing the community and their infrastructure made him realize that “people up North are forgotten about.” He compared Little Salmon Carmacks’s situation to that of Walkerton, Ontario’s in 2000, saying the water was so dirty, “we wouldn’t even shower in it,” and that “sometimes it was brown coming out of the taps.”

The volunteers may have been able to improve the state of the village’s water infrastructure, but the deeper systemic problems remain.

Most critically, there is a shortage of qualified people to operate and repair the wells. A government report notes that there is “a severe shortage … of certified water-treatment systems operators in First Nations communities.” Yukon College offers courses that provide water operators with the knowledge they need to pass the Environmental Operators Certification Program, and the federal government does have funding available to cover the course fees of potential operators from Indigenous communities, but the mathematical requirements seem to be a barrier for many individuals.

“You have to be able to drive a truck and do the math,” Jordan Mullett, Little Salmon Carmacks’ only certified water technician, says. “Most people who are truck drivers are older guys, and they don’t really have their math or their algebra.”

Accordingly, Yukon College has set up a crash-course math course. “You can do it by video conference,” Mullett explains, “five half days in a row.” But despite these efforts, INAC representatives estimate that, for First Nation operators in the Yukon, “the pass rate over the past two years … is approximately 50 percent.”

“We’ve sent lots of people,” Mullett says, “but they always fail. We’ve sent everyone that we possibly can, and some people twice, three times, and they still don’t pass. And even though it’s no cost to us, there’s no point in sending someone for their third or fourth time.”

That leaves Mullett as the only certified operator in the village, one man monitoring dozens of wells—a dangerous ratio. And the story is repeated in communities across the North.

Despite mountains of evidence, much of it accumulated by its own branches, departments, and agents, the federal government has not acted strongly enough to improve water treatment in First Nation communities. No matter how many times the relationship between water quality and other quality of life issues (education, depression, general health, etc.) is spelled out, often by their own employees, politicians and senior bureaucrats have not taken the necessary steps to improve the quality of water in First Nation communities.

To aboriginal leaders, however, the link between water and overall quality of life is clear. The United Nations backed them up in July when the General Assembly passed a resolution affirming water and sanitation as human rights.

“This resolution establishes new international standards,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo shortly after the vote (from which Canada abstained). It “compels Canada to work with First Nations to ensure our people enjoy the same quality of water and sanitation as the rest of Canada.” So far Atleo’s call has little attention from the federal government, leaving Little Salmon Carmacks, and many communities like it, to rely not on the ministry, but on the kindness of strangers.

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