It would cost $29 million -- about one-tenth the price of Winnipeg's new state-of-the-art water treatment plant -- to provide running water and flush toilets to thousands of northern Manitobans living in Third World conditions.
A just-completed community assessment by the Island Lake Tribal Council reports there are about 950 homes on the region's four remote reserves where residents use slop pails or latrines instead of modern toilets.
The figure is starker than the original estimate, which pegged the number at about 800.
More than 1,000 homes need renovations to rough-in plumbing and install taps and toilets in rudimentary washrooms where slop pails and basins now sit. Or, the houses need new additions built to accommodate sinks, tubs and toilets. Most of those homes also need electrical upgrades to run a hot water tank.
The study, funded by the federal government and led by former Wasagamack chief Jerry Knott, is the most refined, up-to-date inventory of the water, sewer and renovation needs in Island Lake, the region with the biggest cluster of homes without modern sanitation.
Until now, cost estimates to fix the problem varied widely.
The tribal council's study puts the pricetag at $29 million for the quickest, cheapest solution -- installing huge, plastic water and sewage tanks beside each home that can be hooked up to indoor toilets and taps.
That tab doesn't include the cost of new trucks needed to deliver water from each reserve's treatment plant or pump out sewage.
Recently, Ottawa committed $5.5 million to renovate 100 homes next spring, buy nine more water and sewage trucks and build garage facilities for the trucks.
Trucks and tanks are seen as a less-than-ideal solution to Island Lake's sanitation woes because the service isn't as reliable, and the water tanks can get slimy without proper cleaning.
But blasting through bedrock to extend underground, city-style pipes are widely seen as too expensive and too slow. At one point, according to documents released under access to information legislation, Ottawa estimated it would cost $113 million to pipe water to those homes where it's feasible.
In some parts of the four reserves, there are homes metres away from the main water and sewer lines, but the homes have never been connected.
"It's almost like putting a state-of-the-art engine into a car with no transmission," said St. Theresa Point Chief David McDougall, the chair of the Island Lake Tribal Council. "What good does it do?"
Officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada have said funding to retrofit homes and connect them to the main water and sewer line should come out of what's called band-based funding, the pot of cash for capital projects given to bands every year to be spent at their discretion. But bands often put off renovating homes because of more pressing capital needs, such as buying fire trucks, a dilemma local AANDC officials acknowledge.
Ottawa and the province recently agreed to work on a joint program to retrofit homes in Island Lake and train reserve residents. No dollar figure or timeline has been attached yet to that deal.
Third World conditions
Garden Hill -- 3,883
St. Theresa Point -- 3,644
Wasgamack -- 1,826
Red Sucker Lake -- 965
Total -- 10,318
Number of homes
Garden Hill -- 582
St. Theresa Point -- 491
Wasgamack -- 263
Red Sucker Lake -- 186
Total -- 1,522
Number of homes with NO indoor water service (i.e. they walk to the communal tap)
Garden Hill -- 358
St. Theresa Point -- 248
Wasgamack -- 175
Red Sucker Lake -- 57
Total -- 838
Number of homes with NO indoor toilets (i.e. slop pails)
Garden Hill -- 436
St. Theresa Point -- 274
Wasgamack -- 179
Red Sucker Lake -- 59
Total -- 948
Cost to retrofit every home with bathrooms and trucked water and sewer service (Does not include new trucks)
Garden Hill -- $12M
St. Theresa Point -- $9M
Wasgamack -- $6M
Red Sucker Lake -- $2M
Total -- $29M
-- Source: Island Lake Tribal Council
What's $29 million?
Half the cost of the new planned Arctic exhibit and interpretive centre at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
About one-seventh the cost of Investors Group Field, the new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
About nine per cent of the cost of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
About one-fourth the cost of the new Chief Peguis Trail extension.
Less than one-tenth of the value of the MPI rebate cheques mailed out to drivers last spring.
EVER since Prime Minister Stephen Harper mused about the fate of $90 million spent over the years on Attawapiskat, Canadians have wondered how much money goes to remote reserves.
That information is, to some degree, public on the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website.
For example, in 2009-2010, St. Theresa Point got $51 million in federal funds. That cash covered everything from the health centre, the school and education department, the band office, homecare, scholarships for band members in university and social assistance cheques. It also covered municipal services such as firefighting, road grading and plowing, water and sewer service and recreation. And it paid for new houses, renovations and other small-scale capital projects.
St. Theresa Point has roughly the same population as Altona, but the homes are spread out over a large peninsula. And, there is only road access for about six weeks out of the year, which adds dramatically to the cost of goods, services and professional expertise that must be trucked in on the winter road or flown in.