Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Feds, province agree to bring running water to Island Lake

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OTTAWA -- The provincial and federal governments agreed Friday to a joint program to give running water to homes in the Island Lake region of Manitoba.

However, there is still no dollar figure attached nor a timeline for completing the project.

Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson and federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan met in Ottawa on Friday, mainly to discuss the Island Lake water crisis and hammer out a plan to fix it together.

"It was one of the most productive meetings I have had with the federal government in a long time," said Robinson.

In the 1990s, a similar joint initiative between Ontario and Canada resulted in 3,800 homes on reserves in northern Ontario retrofitted with plumbing and modern electricity.

Robinson said there is no detail yet on who will spend what or when.

"We have to be creative with the solutions and Ottawa has to live up to its treaty obligations," said Robinson. "At the same time we can't forget these people are Manitobans."

Technically Ottawa has sole jurisdiction for all things on reserves.

The province wants the program to include apprenticeships to train residents on the reserve to do the work themselves. However, the federal Aboriginal Affairs Department does not do training programs so it will have to be negotiated with another department, like Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

About 1,000 homes in the four communities of Island Lake have no running water. It accounts for more than half the homes in Garden Hill, St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Red Sucker Lake.

Residents use slop pails instead of toilets, tote water home in buckets from community wells and nearby lakes.

They often have less access to clean water every day than the United Nations recommends be available in refugee camps.

The lack of water leads to poor hygiene and a public health crisis including skin infections, chronic diarrhea and the easy spread of germs. It was blamed for the outbreak of H1N1 in St. Theresa Point in 2009.

Duncan agreed last month to support a Liberal motion to get the ball rolling on getting running water to northern reserves by next spring.

He immediately put $5.5 million down so materials could be purchased and trucked into the four communities in Island Lake over the winter roads.

The chiefs and AANDC agreed the first funds would be used to retrofit 100 homes with indoor plumbing and fixtures including toilets and bathtubs. As well, it will be used to buy four new water trucks, five new sewage trucks and materials to build garages.

Three of the four Island Lake communities have endorsed a provincial plan that includes training. Only St. Theresa Point has not.

Chief David McDougall said he's worried any money that flows won't be new cash. It will simply be repurposed from some other program. He said he needs to be sure the deal involves new money, even if it means he's seen as slowing the process.

"So far, our biggest cheerleader has been the province," he said. "But do cheerleaders really help win the game?"

-- with files from Mary Agnes Welch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 A8

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