WHERE’S the outrage?
It’s been a year since the Winnipeg Free Press first highlighted the damage to health and human dignity caused by the lack of running water in 1,400 First Nations homes. The series of stories spawned hundreds of emails, online comments and letters to the editor, many asking what action average people could take to solve the problem.
But since then, a small handful of advocacy campaigns have largely failed to galvanize public opinion, few charitable organizations have stepped up to tackle the problem and the federal government is under no sustained pressure to provide essential services to First Nations mired in Third World conditions
"All that energy and public attention just dissipated," said Laurel Gardiner, director of the Manitoba office of the Frontiers Foundation, an aboriginal charitable agency that’s piloting a home retrofit program in Island Lake.
For every Manitoban who asks how they can help, there are many more who blame the victims, saying First Nations already get enough federal funding, waste taxpayers money on corruption and need to fix their own problems.
Meanwhile, national and provincial First Nations groups focus on larger, more nebulous questions of water rights guaranteed under treaties and the Canadian constitution, but have not managed to kick-start any practical action in Island Lake or beyond.
Following the first batch of Free Press stories, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs launched a postcard campaign and an online petition, but it has largely fizzled. The petition has only garnered about 760 signatures so far. Interestingly, many of those are from outside Manitoba, even as far away as San Francisco and Melbourne, Australia.
Manitoba’s construction and engineering industries have been largely mum about the issue.
When home-renovation tough-guy Mike Holmes announced in Winnipeg in the summer of 2010 that he was partnering with the national Assembly of First Nations to improve housing on reserves, many hoped that might have the spinoff effect of retrofitting homes in Manitoba with indoor plumbing. Instead, Holmes and the AFN announced in January that a First Nation outside Sudbury would host the pilot project.
The Mennonite Central Committee, that venerable Manitoba- based aid agency, sent staff on a fact-finding mission to Island Lake in February and held a public meeting to discuss how the MCC could help deal with the running water crisis. Little came of it.
Executive director Peter Rempel says the MCC is in a holding pattern until the Island Lake Tribal Council completes an assessment of the region’s needs. That’s when it will become clearer what role MCC could reasonably play, perhaps including volunteer expertise to help train band members to retrofit homes.
About the only group making any tangible progress is Frontiers, and even Gardiner admits it’s slower than she’d like.
Frontiers is working on building five new homes in Garden Hill, complete with proper indoor plumbing, and hopes to build another five over the next couple of years.
And, using $50,000 in provincial grants, the agency has launched a pilot project that seeks to train band members to build and install additions onto homes with no indoor plumbing. Frontiers has the blueprints for those additions, which include a bathroom, a laundry room and a mudroom. The bands even mill the lumber on-site using permanent equipment Frontiers sources.
This summer, Frontiers was able to do one house in Wasagamack as a test.
"Next summer we could do more," said Gardiner, who envisions a kind of assembly-line construction process where many additions are built every summer.
The project is also the Manitoba government’s big entree into the issue, allowing it to spend money on training and apprenticeship, which is in its jurisdiction, rather than building houses and installing pipes, which is clearly Ottawa’s responsibility
With the province’s help, Frontiers is also experimenting with a new bio-filter tank that can be installed near each home to treat sewage on-site, freeing up room in the band’s treatment plant and trips by the sewage truck. Frontiers hoped to test the bio-filter this winter in Garden Hill, but it’s too big to fly in so the agency must wait for the winter road to open in a few months.
But Frontiers is a relatively small charity. It’s got expertise working with remote First Nations, but it can’t possibly bring running water to the 1,400 homes in Manitoba that need it.
And, as staff at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs point out, it’s the government’s job to provide essential services, a responsibility crystallized in treaties and in the Canadian Constitution. Allowing charities to step in and bear some of the load, while helpful in the short-term, undermines those rights, essentially letting Ottawa off the hook.
But Gardiner sees tons of "low-hanging fruit" — easy, relatively cheap projects the government could do to bring indoor plumbing to people fast, but it just isn’t doing. That includes hooking up every house along already-built water and sewer mains and retrofitting those homes for indoor plumbing.
"What it’s going to take is a partnership between all levels of government, the First Nations and the tribal council," she said.
"Let’s just get started."