When it comes to protecting water, Melissa Herda is in a class of her own.
The Fisher River Cree Nation resident is the only woman with Level 2 certification to run both a water and wastewater treatment plant on a reserve, and possibly the only one in Manitoba. The 28-year-old never expected the accolades she’s receiving provincially and nationally for a job she enjoys in a community she loves.
"I like my job. It's challenging, and we're continuously learning," Herda said.
Earlier this year, she was named operator of year at the 14th annual Water & Wastewater Symposium in Winnipeg. The award is presented by the Manitoba First Nation Water and Wastewater Instruction Program, with the recipient chosen by all the instructors.
"We're pretty proud of her," said Ken Mattes, senior instructor with Circuit Rider Training — Manitoba.
Circuit Rider works for the West Region Tribal Council, training water and wastewater treatment plant operators.
"She's talented, smart and young," Mattes said.
Later this month, Herda will be recognized by the Assembly of First Nations at an event in Toronto. The young Level 2 operator said being the only woman on the job or in the training room isn't a problem.
"You get used to it," said Herda, who was born and raised in Fisher River, 220 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
She liked to work with her hands, and enjoyed math and science in school. "I knew I wanted to get into trades."
Herda was considering attending Red River College in Winnipeg, when she heard about a hands-on, local job opening.
"I started off driving the water truck, and helping with whatever they need with the water plant," she said. "I started after high school."
When the First Nation posted a full-time position for water plant operator, Herda went for it. She learned on the job and with Circuit Rider instructor Al Yascheshyn, receiving training in Fisher River and in Winnipeg, via RRC. She passed Level 1 in 2017, and Level 2 for both water and wastewater this year.
She and three co-workers are responsible for the community's $16-million, state-of-the-art water and sewage treatment plants and lagoon (replacing individual wells and septic fields). The new sewage plant has an innovative system for removing phosphorus from wastewater to protect nearby Lake Winnipeg, according to Fisher River's website.
"If we were to have a break down or something, we have to be able to make adjustments and figure it out," said Herda. "We have to be ready and on call if anything happens.
"So far, there's been nothing major. We fix 95 per cent of everything ourselves... Our main concern is to have potable drinking water for our community."
In January 2018, then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott said the federal government was taking further steps to end long-term drinking-water advisories on reserves. Last month, Ottawa said 87 such advisories at First Nations had been lifted since November 2015, but 57 remain.
Herda said she's thinking about earning her Level 3 water and wastewater certification, but has no plans to leave Fisher River — a community of 1,473 that grew by 27 per cent between 2011 and 2016, census figures show.
"I love my community."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.