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A tough life without running water, but others have it worse

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WASAGAMACK -- Rubena Harper meticulously dries every fork, every knife, a ladle and a pizza slicer, wheeling back and forth from the sink to a small table in her kitchen.

"If you keep the body in motion, it stays in motion," says the 65-year-old.

Harper, whose hands are clawed from the same arthritis that keeps her mostly wheelchair-bound, has no running water in her tidy kitchen, so she does her dishes using water hauled from the communal tap or trucked to a water tank.

In the mudroom just a few feet from where she's drying her dishes stand the slop pail and the commode. It's tricky for Harper, who has three metal plates in one leg and is quite thin, to manoeuvre herself from her wheelchair onto the commode.

Harper's house is right on the shores of Island Lake -- only her husband's garden patch stands between her bungalow and the water -- but she doesn't like to use lake water for cleaning. Too dirty, she says. Her home is shabby -- new linoleum is duct-taped to the old floor and the walls are dirty -- but it's very neat.

"Trying to wash the clothes in the winter, it's very hard," she says. Many houses have old wringer washing machines, the carcasses of which are often parked in mudrooms.

Harper lives, aptly, on Harper's Island, which might be the next enclave of the reserve to get running water. Wasagamack's new chief, Alex McDougall, says the band isn't slated to get capital funding for the third phase of its water and waste system until 2013, but he's asked Ottawa to confirm in writing the cash is coming so he can borrow against the money and build Phase 3 right now.

With the school and a handful of homes already serviced, Harper's Island would be the next logical place to extend the pipes. It's not clear how much it might cost, but McDougall says the next phase could provide service to at least 75 homes. That could catapult the community forward from one of the worst in Island Lake for indoor plumbing to one of the best.

Right now, only 90 homes have indoor drinking water on the reserve, either from a cistern that feeds indoor taps or from traditional underground pipes. The band's water and sewage treatment plants were built in the mid- to late 1990s and already a recent national assessment has pegged the band's sewage-treatment plant as "high-risk" due to concerns over its design, capacity, effluent risk and maintenance. It has been known to dump barely treated sewage into Island Lake, which makes Rubena Harper's caution justified.

Harper would very much like to see running water installed in her home, but she's not convinced she would be the first on the island to get it.

"There are others who are more critical, their well-being, than I am," she says in Oji-Cree.

At Wasagamack, like most reserves, two critical issues -- overcrowding and the lack of running water -- combine to put the band in a crisis.

The band's housing co-ordinator gives priority to people with chronic health issues or whose homes are overcrowded. No new home is built without running water -- either a hook-up to the main water and sewer line or a cistern installed under the home that can pump water into working toilets and tubs. Often a new home will kill two birds with one stone -- a family will get running water and a little more room.

Other times a retrofit of an existing home will give a family toilets and sinks but the home will remain overcrowded.

Every spring, when bands begin to build or retrofit the 12 or 15 or 20 houses they can afford to do every year, the housing co-ordinator submits a list of the neediest residents to the chief and council for approval. In Wasagamack, where there's a backlog of 250 homes needed immediately for the worst off, it's an impossible choice.

On many reserves, complaints of political interference are frequent.

Many people assume the band's chief and councillors take care of their extended families first, ensuring their homes have running water. Not so in many cases, including Harper's. Harper's husband is band councillor Thomas Harper.

Harper, though frail and disabled, is perhaps not as critical as some, and her home is less crowded than many. She's not sure where she sits on the priority list.

Rubena Harper says it's not right that Wasagamack has fallen so far behind when it comes to basic modern sanitation, something the government has promised her people repeatedly it would take care of.

"They can do it if they want to do it," she says.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 J4

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