ISLAND LAKE -- Thousands of Manitoba residents an hour's flight from Winnipeg have no running water in their homes, putting them at increased risk for a host of health problems usually associated with the world's poorest countries.
While Winnipeggers enjoy the improved taste of abundant tap water from a brand-new treatment plant and soak in hot baths to take away winter's chill, half of Island Lake's 10,000 residents live in homes with no taps or bathrooms.
"In our home, there's no reason to even think about giving the kids a bath because there's no water," said Coun. Clifford Harper in nearby Red Sucker Lake, whose family of 12 gets by on three pails of water a day.
With no toilets, residents either brave a walk to the outhouse on January nights that dip to -28 C on average or resort to defecating in an indoor bucket, dumping it outside in the morning. Some of the germ-laden refuse washes into the lake, after soaking ground near where children play.
"I'm kinda worried because they're going to get sick from this place," said water treatment plant operator Bruce McDougall, as he stood beside a pit in Garden Hill where nearby residents dump garbage and human waste.
A Free Press investigation has revealed more than 40 per cent of the homes on Canadian First Nations without running water are in Manitoba, even though Manitoba has only 15 per cent of the country's reserve housing stock.
Most of Manitoba's unserviced homes are in the four Island Lake First Nations -- St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack, Red Sucker Lake and Garden Hill -- located about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, near the Ontario border.
Urban health workers who fly up to the region are shocked by what they find -- even those familiar with deplorable living conditions on other northern reserves.
"I can't tell you how many students can't believe what they're seeing," said Dr. Hanka Hulsbosch, who has worked in Garden Hill for several years.
Skin conditions and chronic diarrhea are common in homes where it's hard to find enough water to keep clean. But sometimes the results are more deadly -- superbug infections and killer flus, for example.
"When H1N1 flu started, St. Theresa Point was point zero for that. That should have sent something to the Canadian government to realize that they have major problems in our communities," said former Red Sucker Lake chief Elijah Harper, who went on to become an MLA, MP and one of Canada's most respected aboriginal leaders. He has travelled throughout the developing world on humanitarian missions, where he finds conditions are often better than at home.
"We're living in... worse than Third World conditions in some cases."
Almost 20 years ago, Indian and Northern Affairs promised Elijah's brother Fred Harper, who was Red Sucker Lake's chief at the time, that water and sewer services for Island Lake would be the top priority. So far, $91 million has been spent on treatment plants, water trucks and some piping, but half of Island Lake homes still lack either piped-in water or big storage tanks from which water can be pumped to a tap.
"Half is not enough," said Garden Hill band manager Steve McDougall, who hauls water for his family. "We're not even on the (Indian and Northern Affairs) five-year capital plan."
Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan said his government believes Canadians deserve access to safe water.
"We just can't fix everything overnight, but we recognize that there are some very bad situations out there."
After being informed by the Free Press about the grim situation in Island Lake, the minister said it may be possible to deliver more water to homes while they wait for expensive plumbing upgrades.
"We'll make sure that we can provide a temporary solution until we can get to a permanent solution," he said. "We want to make sure that people's health is not at risk."
Water and sewer infrastructure is hugely expensive in communities where winter roads are sometimes open only a couple of weeks a year and pipes must be carefully routed around bedrock or blasted through.
Existing homes have to undergo such major renovations to add plumbing and perhaps support heavy sewage and water storage tanks that in many cases, it's more efficient to rebuild from scratch.
In St. Theresa Point, 300 homes are needed to catch up with the demand, said Coun. Martin Monias, but the First Nation gets funding for only nine new houses a year and less than a dozen retrofits.
The Island Lake region's population is expected to grow from 10,000 to 16,000 by 2025, so the housing shortage will only get worse.
While there's optimism -- but no concrete funding commitment -- about getting running water to most newer Island Lake homes within the next decade, residents of older homes have little hope for renovations to install plumbing.
"I don't think we'll ever have money for that kind of project," Clifford Harper said.
His community is grateful to finally have funding this year to build a bigger treatment plant so water trucks will no longer run short delivering to those homes lucky enough to have cisterns.
"There have been numerous days that our reservoirs and our treatment plant have been totally dry," he said. "If we had no water, what would Canada do? I think they'd send in the military to provide us with water."
Like Canada does overseas after earthquakes and tornadoes.
"Go and work with Doctors Without Borders, and it's just the same. It's just that the bombs aren't coming over your head," said a nurse who has worked in the region. Her name is not being published because Health Canada refused to let front-line workers speak publicly.
The nurse said her family used to send lots of money to overseas charities.
"I can't anymore... I just was crazy when I heard (the northern chiefs were) raising money, and they were sending it to Haiti. I thought 'Christ, send it to us here.'"
Within a month of Haiti's January earthquake, Canadians donated more than $150 million.
Type of water supply to homes serviced by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, March 2010
REGION / Housing units / Water trucked to 45-gallon barrels (A) / No water service (B) / No plumbing (A+B)
Atlantic 6,743 0 11 11
Quebec 9,889 0 0 0
Ontario 23,783 59 1,011 1,070
Manitoba 15,633 908 540 1,448
Saskatchewan 13,544 47 53 100
Alberta 14,718 329 283 612
British Columbia 18,959 1 164 165
Yukon 583 0 4 4
TOTAL 103,852 1,344 2,066 3,410
Source: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada