RESEARCHERS are collecting samples of drinking water from a dozen randomly chosen Manitoba First Nations to test for traces of metals, such as mercury, that can slowly poison.
"I mentioned to them I wanted water samples across from the old garbage dump because that's upstream of where our water intake is," said Hollow Water Coun. Denelle Bushie.
He's also worried about what might be coming downstream from the Bissett gold mines via the Wanipigow River that supplies drinking water for Hollow Water residents.
Northlands First Nation has similar concerns about uranium mines across the Saskatchewan border.
The testing is part of a 10-year nutrition study by the University of Northern British Columbia, the Assembly of First Nations and the University of Montreal. Data have already been collected from 21 First Nations in B.C., but the results are not yet available.
First Nations have no control over the water flowing into their reserves, which is sometimes contaminated with industrial waste or swirling with silt from hydro development.
Winnipeg environmental lawyer Merrell-Ann Phare said First Nations are trying to gain recognition of their aboriginal and treaty rights to help manage and protect whole watersheds.
"For many First Nations, they have absolutely no say in what's happening to the source waters from which they get their drinking water."
A 1997 study on Sagkeeng First Nation by University of Manitoba health researchers found residents' No. 1 concern about industrial development was contamination of the water supply.
Water treatment plants on numerous northern Manitoba First Nations are "inhaling water that's filled with silt" related to Manitoba Hydro operations, according to a researcher who advises First Nations.
At Fox Lake, "Their water used to be turquoise blue," said Jennie Wastesicoot, until recently health director for the northern Manitoba chiefs. "Now it's all ugly-coloured brown."
Hydro's manipulation of water levels has also caused water to drop at certain times of year in York Factory First Nation, making it harder to produce decent quality drinking water. Pukatawagan faces similar problems when SaskPower won't release enough water into the Churchill River and algae builds up.
Former national chief Phil Fontaine said you can't talk about the 117 First Nations forced to boil their tap water without talking about hog farms, hydro projects, paper mills, mines and farms.
"We will continue to be challenged with these problems if we don't... regulate more effectively the major polluters."
Dealing with polluters usually starts with proving the water is, in fact, polluted, and then tracing the source.
That's where independent academics come in handy because they're freer to speak their minds than government scientists.
First Nations are often leery of research, questioning who will control it and who will benefit, but savvy leaders such as Bushie -- an engineer himself -- recognize that academics can be allies.
For their part, researchers are learning how to work more sensitively in true partnerships with First Nations.
Across Canada, researchers are trying to solve other problems related to First Nations water -- such as the difficulty in tracing the cause of diarrhea in remote communities. When fecal samples must be flown from a northern First Nation to Winnipeg and results don't show up until after the infection has cleared up, there's little motivation on the part of patients or nurses to bother.
Dr. Robert Slinger from the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario is testing a high-tech solution -- a plate that will do miniature DNA tests for more than 20 germs at the same time within a few hours on the spot in a local health centre. With an accurate diagnosis, medical staff would be able to make better decisions on which antibiotic to prescribe and epidemiologists could track the source of the bug back to the contaminated food or water, helping prevent more illness. So far, Slinger has found that the sometimes waterborne intestinal parasite Cryptosporidium is more common in Nunavut residents with diarrhea than in southern Canada.
University of British Columbia engineering PhD student Kristian Dubrawski is exploring water plant technology for small communities that would get rid of contaminants using electricity instead of expensive chemicals.
Some Canadian academics are even studying the social and political factors that make it hard for First Nations to provide safe drinking water.
Sociologist Jerry White at the University of Western Ontario said indigenous people used to learn about water when they were out hunting. They kept track of water flow patterns, made sure drinking water wasn't contaminated by sewage and learned to be careful at certain times of year when runoff water was likely to make them sick.
"We broke the educational chain when we brought in the residential schools," he said.
The inherited lifelong role of water-keeper has been replaced by barely trained water plant workers who could lose their jobs with a change of band council. Many reserves have also ended up on land with a poor water supply after settlers grabbed better spots that were once indigenous people's camps.
White said it's hard to solve drinking water problems when they're leaning up against other issues such as education and poverty.
"There's a lot of people in the First Nations communities who are bright, interested and want to work. We have to create mechanisms for them to be able to take control of some of these issues."
These stories were partially funded by a journalism award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.