NO one can accuse the Canadian government of ignoring water and waste-water systems on First Nations over the last 15 years.
The Library of Parliament estimates $3.5 billion was spent between 1995 and 2008 and hundreds of millions more have been committed since.
After that kind of staggering expenditure, why is tap water on so many First Nations unfit to drink and why do half the homes in Island Lake lack running water?
Then-Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl pretty much admitted this spring his department cannot keep up with infrastructure needs on reserves -- unless there's a major change in how projects are funded.
First Nations have to wait until they have all the cash needed for a project before it can go ahead, which usually means begging the regional INAC office to push the project ahead of other equally worthy projects.
"You roll the dice, you get a school, you roll the dice, you don't get a school," is how Strahl described it.
Water and sewage plants and distribution pipes are always expensive -- Winnipeg's new water treatment plant cost $300 million -- but the expense escalates when supplies have to be shipped to remote communities. Southern First Nations sometimes contract with neighbouring towns to supply water, but that's not an option farther north where there are no neighbours.
The government has also been playing catch-up after decades of neglect. A source with inside knowledge of INAC said the unwritten policy in the 1970s was to not provide clean drinking water on reserves, forcing residents to leave.
Meanwhile, Canada's aboriginal population is growing twice as quickly as the rest of the Canadian population, so treatment plants on First Nations run out of capacity faster.
In March, the federal budget promised to review the government's approach to financing First Nations infrastructure, including helping First Nations access "alternative sources of financing."
Strahl said it will be "the single biggest significant change in infrastructure management that has been seen in this department in a lifetime."
He said some First Nations want to use their own revenue or property taxes to finance infrastructure -- mostly an option for reserves close to cities that have that kind of cash. Strahl also raised the possibility of public-private partnerships, like the contentious one into which Winnipeg has entered for upgrades to sewage treatment plants.
New Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan agrees financing reserve infrastructure on a cash basis isn't delivering results quickly enough, but he's not pushing any particular new financing model.
"We're not there yet," he said. "It's not really tied into where we are now or next year. I think we're looking down the road."
However, the minister said some First Nations are already financing projects in creative ways.
As a former entrepreneur, National Chief Shawn Atleo is not afraid of private partnerships.
"We're actually doing work to help and support First Nations to consider things like private partnerships when it comes to infrastructure, recognizing that there is value to be brought to bear in terms of capacity and experience.
"We're reaching out as well to the philanthropic community."
Home renovation television star Mike Holmes announced in Winnipeg this summer he is partnering with the Assembly of First Nations to improve reserve housing.
But Atleo warned that the minister's promotion of private partnerships had better not be a way to off-load the government's costs and legal responsibilities.
"Solutions can't just be designed to remove themselves from the obligation. The partnership is with the Crown as a treaty partner."
The Assembly of First Nations has applied for funding to hold workshops this fall with chiefs, banks and private water utilities such as B.C.-based Corix on new financing models for water and sewage plants.
The biggest hurdle to private investment on reserves is investors have no way to recoup their cash if a project fails since they can't seize reserve land or buildings.
The government sometimes provides ministerial loan guarantees, but those last five years at most -- not the 20 years that might be required for a small First Nation to pay off loans on a new multimillion-dollar water-treatment plant.
Former national Phil Fontaine said industry is starting to understand it will have to apply a different approach in doing business with First Nations -- one that does not depend on land and buildings as loan collateral.
"Who is going to walk away from $30 to $35 billion?" he said, estimating the potential value of business on reserves.
While First Nations wait for the
megabucks they need to expand or replace water and sewage plants and distribution pipes, other potentially less expensive community improvements would also help:
-- Building apartment buildings or townhouses where families live closer together would cut down on the distance water has to travel through pipes in rocky terrain. That requires a shift in thinking for families used to living spread out around a reserve on patches of land their families have occupied for generations.
-- Spreading gravel on dirt roads to give water-delivery trucks a better chance of making it to homes during spring runoff and summer storms.
-- Providing First Nations with advance funding for water-treatment chemicals and construction supplies so they can purchase them in advance ready to ship up immediately when the winter-road season opens in February. The federal government's funding cycle is increasingly out of whack with the seasonal needs of remote communities, with funds to cover the summer and fall construction season not released until April, said Northern Manitoba Grand Chief David Harper.
-- Longer terms for chiefs and councils -- something Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans is pushing at the national level -- so they can see construction projects through from funding to completion. Chiefs complain INAC sometimes promises funding to one chief for which the next chief must fight all over again.
-- Condemning houses without proper sanitation as unfit to live, then providing emergency renovation funding for those families. In Winnipeg, inspectors have shut down rental huts because they didn't have toilets and hot and cold running water, which are all mandatory under provincial rules. On reserves, federal environmental health officers can recommend a home be shut down, but they leave it up to band councils to decide what to do. With the number of families already waiting for homes far outstripping construction funding, First Nations have little choice but to let families keep living in unfit homes that would be condemned anywhere else, said retired public health doctor Pete Sarsfield.
Canada's Economic Action Plan, designed to help the country weather the recession, committed $183 million for 18 water and waste-water projects on First Nations. In Manitoba, three projects were funded:
-- Pinaymootang First Nation: a new $7.2-million lagoon was completed in December 2009.
-- Norway House: construction of a new $13.5-million lagoon began this year.
-- War Lake: a $3.2-million water-treatment plant expansion began in March.