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Water Today Title January 27, 2021

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Update 2018/6/14
First Nation Water


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by Michelle Moore

In January of 2018 the federal government made the commitment to end all long term boil water advisories (BWAs) in First Nation communities across Canada by 2021. But some First Nations have decided to try and take the problem into their own hands.

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority comes out of the Clean Water Initiative, a project put forth by The Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Secretariat (APC-FNS). Partnering with Health Canada, they were able to better train their Community Based Water Monitors and Operators. Between 2007 and 2015 they saw the percentage of samples in non-compliance fall from 29.6% to 11.6%.

Out of this Clean Water Initiative, the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority was created. Recently they have made concrete steps forward with the appointment of a First Nations board of directors from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Currently there are 76 long term BWAs in First Nation communities across the country, with two in the maritimes. Miawpukek in Newfoundland and Labrador, which serves between 501 and 1000 people, has been under long term BWA since September 2015. In New Brunswick, a source for Eel Ground which serves less than one hundred people has been under long term BWA since November 2009.

Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton also had issues of their own last year with water samples indicating high levels of iron and magnesium. Over a year of water problems had residents complaining of a bad smell and strange colour which culminated with Health Canada issuing an advisory telling people not to use the water for anything, not even washing their clothes.

Executive Director of the APC-FNS, John Paul said of the First Nations run water authority, "it's been a project that our organization has been working on for seven years, since the expert panel of the federal government came around and looked at what type of legislation and regulatory changes would be required to protect First Nations water systems across Canada."

He said since then they really studied the issues and developed a plan to move forward which became the institution they are creating today. To help build it, a contract was awarded to Halifax Water in February last year to develop recommendations for a corporate structure and business plan.

Paul said "the water authority will be doing training, career development. Developing a long term human resource plan and training plan for all the employees for the authority basically, who are now employees of the individual communities and work to make a very smooth transition to the new institution."

The water authority has also partnered with Graham Gagnon, Dalhousie professor and director of the Centre for Water Resources Studies who has been serving as a technical adviser.

When asked how it would be run differently from the current model, Paul said "it will be very different than it is today because the current system is hit and miss, and everyone is competing for scarce financial resources to bring water systems to a common standard. The difference here is that we are going to work with and on behalf of all the communities to bring all water systems in all communities to one common standard for water and wastewater to ensure all communities have safe drinking water."

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority aims to be a technical organization built by and for First Nations focused on the provision of water and wastewater services. It will be operated through six hubs across Mi'kmaq and Wolastoquew territories and will function as a non-profit business uniting over twenty First Nations communities across Atlantic Canada.

Paul explained, “it will provide all the oversight, control and management. Basically, right now those obligations fall to chief and council as well as all legal liabilities. So, it becomes a corporate professional structure to address water and wastewater issues in communities and takes it off the plate of chief and council and puts it into a professional organization which will be headed by chiefs as well."

Throughout initial discussions with the APC-FNS it became clear that water was more than a utility. The values of environmental stewardship, the spiritual aspects of water and the concept of two-eyed seeing will be integral in moving forward.

Two-eyed seeing, or Etuaptmumk in Mi'kmaw, is a concept that was introduced by Mi'kmaw Elder Albert Marshall in 2004 in the Integrative Sciences at Cape Breton University. Two-eyed seeing refers to finding the strengths of seeing the world in both the Western scientific way and the Indigenous way.

Paul explained, "it's a very important part of what we are going to do, even part of the governance. We have identified a specific advisory group of elders that would advise the board and the water authority itself would play a very strong advocacy role relative to education and about our traditional views related to water and the protection of water as an important element of our cultural values."

Recently the authority has begun to form their Board of Directors; appointing members Chief Aaron Sock from Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, Chief Matilda Ramjattan from Lennox Island First Nation on Prince Edward Island, Chief Andrea Paul from Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia, Chief Leroy Denny from Eskasoni First Nation, and Potlotek First Nation Chief Wilbert Marshall.

Paul said "we've done all the work, the engineering, the business case, the financial analysis and established an interim board at our last chiefs meeting. Now we are just waiting for the government to finish their review and analysis of all this material and then talk to the government and see what they want to do."

He said that the government has been very cooperative in sharing the necessary resources they've needed to develop the project. He said that since there was almost a year's worth of documents to look through, it will take time to get the response back. He hopes once that happens however, the new water authority will be up and running by next year.

He added that if they can show it works for Atlantic Canada, he will be more than happy to see the model replicated by other First Nations throughout the country.


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