"In some First Nations communities in rural and northern Manitoba, inadequate water supplies have increased the risk for communicable disease... Besides the burden of illness on these communities, all Manitobans bear the medical costs and the loss of productivity associated with preventable diseases. Consultation is under way to ensure the provision of a clean, abundant water supply in these communities."
-- 1995 State of the Environment report, Manitoba Conservation
"The most pressing concern with water supply is found in the delivery system. Approximately 17 per cent of homes in the region do not have service."
-- Neegan Burnside consulting report on Manitoba First Nations
"Since 1996, spending on water and wastewater systems on reserves has ramped up considerably. The time has come for one last big push... The spending should be seen as an investment -- not just in healthier First Nations communities, but in trained workers and the kinds of business activity that depend on safe, high-quality infrastructure."
-- Report of the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations.
"First Nations people in this country have a right to expect, as do all Canadians, that their drinking water is safe. Through sustained investment and dedicated efforts, there has been notable improvement in the quality of water delivered in First Nations communities. However... much more needs to be done."
-- Safe Drinking Water For First Nations: Final report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples
"There is a lack of real urgency to address the issue. It's disappointing, to say the least."
-- Wasagamack Chief Alex McDougall
"The way things are happening, the population rate is exploding, now... It would be very ambitious to say we can do it in 20 or 25 years."
-- St. Theresa Point Chief David McDougall
"There's been hardly any movement, but the fact is that both levels of government have been unstable due to the election... We're still wishing someone will step up to the plate and finally put a lid on this issue."
-- Northern Grand Chief David Harper
"I wish I could say yes, but I haven't."
-- Manitoba Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson on whether he's seen improvement in Ottawa's response to northern sanitation.
"It's a stark reality that for many First Nation families, access to clean and adequate supplies of potable water and basic sanitation remains a daily challenge -- a basic standard of life that many other Canadians take for granted... It's time to come together to achieve the basic standards set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
-- Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo.
"It's getting worse out there."
-- Acting auditor general John Wiersema on a report updating a decade of audits related to First Nations education, housing, drinking water and other issues.
For 1,400 Manitobans, water and sewer services on reserve are a mishmash of solutions most people wouldn't put up with. Here are the options:
Nicknamed "the rockets" by some, they're pointy-roofed, corrugated-metal huts that house a communal spigot of clean, treated water. Some homes are located three or more kilometres from the rockets, so a vehicle or a $10 taxi ride is required to fill up buckets. Other residents are able to walk, hauling pails of water home, sometimes several times a day. In winter, the taps become small icebergs.
Large water tanks located usually underneath homes, these are filled up weekly or twice monthly by water trucks. Pumps then pump the water indoors to power sinks and toilets. There are 4,500 cisterns on Manitoba reserves. Unless they're cleaned regularly with special chemicals -- a tricky and sometimes dangerous job -- the tanks can get slimy and the water contaminated. In 2009, at least 11 per cent of the cisterns tested on Manitoba reserves failed water-quality standards. Cisterns provide indoor running water, but they are seen as a second-rate solution. The water often doesn't last until the truck visits again, the cisterns make people sick and there's no real program to clean them. Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the northern chiefs organization, has estimated it would cost $66 million to install cisterns and retrofit the 800 homes in Island Lake -- a stop-gap measure that at least gets homes ready for pipes one day.
Each reserve has a one or two, but chiefs routinely complain they break down, can't navigate muddy roads in the spring and there's limited federal funding to operate them or build garages for winter storage.
Manitoba Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson famously said, "I still have a slop-pail ring around my ass after all these years," and hundreds of Manitobans can relate. Lately the slop pails have come equipped with toilet seats for added comfort. Typically, the pails are the tall white ones often used in restaurants or construction sites, and many people line them with garbage bags so the toilet-waste is easier to dispose of. In most homes, the slop pails are parked in what would normally be the bathroom, the door kept religiously closed to shield the rest of the home from the stink. Most people dump the contents in makeshift trash piles behind their homes, leaving a putrid river of brown mush out back. It's been happening for decades, leading many to worry the runoff has contaminated beautiful Island Lake.
Behind nearly every home in Island Lake is a typical cottage-style biffy. Many are overflowing, there's concern they've leaked into the surrounding lake and they are often more disgusting than the porta-potties after a long, hot day at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Many women joke that only the men use the outhouses and only in the summer.
The ideal solution, and the one nearly every Manitoban takes for granted, but an expensive one on reserves built on bedrock where homes are very spread out. Some homes are just a few metres from the main water and sewer line. But there's no money for a hookup and the renovations needed to install toilets, sinks, tubs, proper electricity to power a hot-water tank and other modifications. Pipes also require water and sewage treatment plants, and in many reserves those are problematic or too small. It's not clear how much it would cost to bring piped water and sewer services to all 1,400 homes -- likely $100 million or more for Island Lake alone.
Many people without indoor plumbing use water hauled up from the lake for cleaning and bathing, but it's not suitable for drinking, and people often get sick if they try. In the summer, many kids simply take a dip in the lake to get clean, and in the winter families trek with buckets out to holes in the middle of the lake where they hope the water is cleaner. One elder from Wasagamack spends six hours every week hauling in enough water for his family.
About 300 homes in Island Lake alone use septic tanks to store toilet water. Those tanks are then pumped out regularly by sewage trucks -- honey wagons -- and the waste taken to treatment plants on the reserve. It's a reasonable solution that allows people to have indoor toilets.