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Water Today Title May 19, 2022

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Update 2017/10/17
First Nations Water

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By Cori Marshall

The Shoal Lake 40 First Nation community has been living under a water advisory for over two decades. Finding solutions to the non-potable water that feeds the reserve is compounded by issues of access, and by the fact that the community is divided by the provincial boundary between Ontario and Manitoba.

In its June 2016 publication, Make It Safe: Canada's Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out that "the water supplied to many First Nations communities on lands known as reserves is contaminated, hard to access, or at risk due to faulty treatment systems."

The long-term water issues "are indicative of the broader systemic crisis that leaves many First Nations persons facing daily challenges just to access safe water for drinking and hygiene - a fundamental human right easily enjoyed by most Canadians," according to HRW.

Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott, recently said "there is work being done to get a road in [Shoal Lake], and that's happening simultaneously with the work that is being done addressing seven different water systems in that community."

The federal government is taking steps to address this decades-old issue. What is the view from the community, to find out more we spoke with Cuyler Cotton, the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation Co-Ordinator for both the Water Servicing and All Weather Road projects.

Cotton said that the seven systems under advisory are "small pump houses servicing clusters of homes." He explained that the pump houses "were INAC approved, INAC funded systems that did not meet the pre-Walkerton water treatment standards." The pump houses "had no filtration system what-so-ever," Cotton said, meaning that the people "were not protected from Crypto and Giardia parasites."

"There should have been boil water advisories on immediately after they were built," Cotton said. "What happened in 1997 was there was an identified outbreak of cryptosporidiosis," Cotton underlined, and it was at that time that all the systems were placed under an advisory.

It's not as though no attempts have been made to address the situation in the twenty years that have followed. "There have been no less than two separate and complete water treatment and distribution designs both of which went as far as to go to tender," Cotton said. The first project ran headlong into "jurisdictional issues."

    "It's on the Manitoba-Ontario border, there are two First Nations involved, [the community] is not isolated, just south of the Trans-Canada Highway, it's complex just getting there geographically, and incredibly complex getting there politically." Cuyler Cotton,Co-ordinator for both the Water Servicing and All Weather Road Projects

"It is jurisdictionally complex", Cotton added, "and physically complex because [Shoal Lake 40] is a man-made island which increases costs."

Since coming to power in the fall of 2015, the Liberal government has committed itself to ending issues like the one found in Shoal Lake, what has been done since then?

"There has been a revisiting of the last water treatment plant and distribution design, it has been found that if they apply that design it will not effectively eliminate all seven boil water orders," Cotton explained. The plan "will catch most but not all of them, so [engineers] are going back in to redesign to catch all seven," advisories. The engineering review is in progress.

Cotton said that government authorities "have not dealt with some of the jurisdictional complexities," using the access road as an example. The "all-weather access road is currently under construction," he added.

"The federal portion is actually completed, they move fairly quickly, the portion that is in Manitoba, that requires the City of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba's involvement has yet to be started," Cotton explained. Construction on the second phase is scheduled to begin this winter.

"The federal government has moved on some of the issues," Cotton admitted. He emphasized that the problem exists "in all essential services in Shoal Lake 40, they don't have proper sewage disposal, proper garbage disposal, these are all compounded by geographical and jurisdictional issues."

    "While there has been resolve, and action on the access
    issue, it is going to take a serious and sustained political commitment to deliver on essential services in this community."
    Cuyler Cotton,Co-ordinator for both the Water Servicing and All Weather Road Projects.

Cotton continued, saying "now that we're bumping up against some of the realities that have caused this issue to persist for twenty years, some of the resolve seems to be weakening." He admitted that "these are not easy issues." Cotton drove home the fact that "what it comes down to is a First Nation's absolute right to exist as a modern community."

This will not be an easy task for the federal government, "and might mean going up against some other interests that are in the picture," Cotton said. "At the end of the day the federal government has to grow a spine, and stand up for the rights of communities that are living under these circumstances."

This situation defies logic, an entire generation has come of age in the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation Community knowing only bottled water, while the City of Winnipeg supplies its residents with clean safe drinking water.

The city website states that Winnipeg has the authority to withdraw water from Shoal Lake based on "Provincial Acts from both Manitoba and Ontario, as well as a federal government bill from the Senate of Canada." This authority was approved by the International Joint Commission (IJC) in 1914.

IJC oversees matters that would fall under the jurisdiction of the Boundary Waters Treaty (1909), and has weighed in on the Shoal Lake issue in 2013. In April of that year the Commission issued a response to Winnipeg on Proposed Water Service Sharing Agreements, stating "our preliminary assessment is that the City would be in non-compliance with the IJC Order should it transfer Shoal Lake water beyond the City of Winnipeg's municipal limits."

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