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When will almost all Island Lake homes have running water?

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Oscar McDougall, associate director of capital projects for St. Theresa Point First Nation, said he's "semi-optimistic" that either piped water or storage cisterns will be in most homes within his community in five years.

"It's a matter of us working hard to get it."

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The woman who doles out the money is not so sure almost every home in the region will get running water.

"I don't know if I can imagine it in my lifetime, depending on the need of the housing... . You're always having population growth, so it's very difficult to predict whether or not funds will be available or whether or not the population growth is such that you'll ever meet the housing needs -- or whether the communities themselves can continue to be sustainable at that rate," said Anna Fontaine, Manitoba regional director general for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). "That's why we have to look at really solid planning with them."

Northern Manitoba Grand Chief David Harper said running water might already have been installed in most Island Lake homes if the 2005 Kelowna accord had been implemented. In that deal, former prime minister Paul Martin and provincial governments promised an extra $400 million over five years to deal with chronic water-quality problems on reserves.

Former national chief Phil Fontaine agrees.

"We would have been able to turn the corner. We would have seen a very noticeable closing in the gap in the quality of life."

The Kelowna accord was doomed once the Conservatives won a minority government because it bore the Liberal brand, Fontaine said.

How much will it cost?

IN 2001, Neegan Burnside consultants concluded $210 million was needed to connect water and sewer services to unserviced homes on Manitoba First Nations.

Since that time, $55 million has been spent in Island Lake alone, but it still has more unserviced homes than any other region.

The Island Lake Tribal Council was unable to provide an estimate of what it will cost to extend running water to the sections of each community not yet serviced, but with half the homes still waiting and the population growing, it could easily add up to another $40 million.

Winnipeg-based consultants with the national engineering firm Neegan Burnside are crunching new numbers right now. They were contracted last year by INAC to assess water and waste-water systems on every reserve in the country and their report is due soon.

The funding formula from INAC assumes First Nations will come up with 20 per cent of operating costs for water and sewer plants by charging user fees. Because residents in remote communities can't afford user fees, those First Nations are sometimes forced to cut corners or take money from other services such as road maintenance. That's one reason why First Nations end up in a financial mess, with INAC ordering in third-party managers.

Even in southern Manitoba, water and sewer services are among the most expensive things local governments provide. Residents of Elma are rebelling over plans to charge each family $23,000 for piped water and sewers to replace contaminated private wells.

Rural municipalities typically get one-third of the funding for new water plants from the provincial government and one-third from the federal government. First Nations get no help from the province. Overall, governments spend less than half as much per capita on First Nations residents as they do on other Canadians, according to a 2004 report by the Assembly of First Nations.

Some outsiders harbour suspicions that Island Lake First Nations already have enough government funding to hook up every home to running water, but that they have diverted it to inflated chiefs' salaries. However, even if chiefs sacrificed their entire incomes -- on average, Canadian chiefs earn about $60,000 -- it would be a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the cost of hauling in pipes over winter roads and installing them for hundreds of families.

Most Island Lake band council members interviewed by the Free Press live without running water themselves -- unless they happen to be married to teachers, who are sometimes provided better accommodation.

The reality is INAC has started funding water services in these communities, but has not yet gotten around to finishing the job.

It's unfortunate that Canada is moving into a post-recession era of restraint, Phil Fontaine said. "The fiscal cupboard is bare."

"The situation in many First Nation communities is pretty desperate. Our problem is that if we keep beating that drum, there is a chance that people will be turned off."

He said most Canadians don't realize the return on investment in First Nations has been significant in terms of educated students and small business startups.

"We can't afford to turn our back on aboriginal people."

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