OTTAWA — The federal government is set to end both of Manitoba’s long-standing drinking-water advisories on First Nations within a year. But there’s still no end in sight to the boil-water warning for an Ontario reserve that holds Winnipeg’s drinking water.
For three years, the First Nations of Wuskwi Sipihk (on the western shore of Swan Lake) and Pauingassi (which sits on a remote peninsula near Little Grand Rapids) have been under a drinking-water advisory.
Both communities are set to have clean water coming out of their taps by next autumn. They both lacked clean water during the October 2015 election, when now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to solve all drinking-water advisories on First Nations within five years.
As of Thursday, the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada website lists more than 150 drinking-water advisories across Canada — 20 are in Manitoba. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, according to Lysane Bolduc, INAC’s director for implementing water and wastewater programs.
About half are short-term advisories, defined as those lasting less than a year, can be caused by mechanical damage during a storm surge, environmental changes that lead to higher chlorine levels in a water sources, she said. Long-term advisories often involve a malfunctioning treatment plant, which can usually takes 18 to 24 months to fix through a process of assessing needs, designing a plant and putting it out for a tender for contractors.
Bolduc says the fact most drinking-water advisories are short-term is a good thing, because it shows First Nations face the same occasional problems any major Canadian city does. "Getting upset over short-term advisories isn't right thing to do," she said.
In western Manitoba, residents of Wuskwi Sipihk have relied on bottled water since April 24, 2014, when their water-treatment plant stopped working. Some on the edge of the reserve have access to a neighbouring community’s drinkable water.
The tribe, which is Swampy Cree, has a registered population of 644 with slightly less than 200 living on-reserve (as of last month). Most have moved from a lakeside up toward Highway 10, where they’ve asked to have a new water-treatment plant built.
INAC said it’s expecting to begin design work next year, and finish construction in 2019. But Wuskwi Sipihk Chief Elwood Zastre says he expects an even faster turnaround, with designs for a water-treatment plant this year, and with a contract to be awarded sometime in the spring.
"We should have our new water plant by next fall, for sure," he said. "We're all set to go on it."
Meanwhile, the Anishinaabe community of Pauingassi has lacked clean water since Sept. 24, 2014. Last month, the First Nation had a registered population of 656, with most living on the reserve.
Michel Burrowes, the Manitoba head of infrastructure for INAC, says his colleagues have helped Pauingassi complete population projections and map out water sources, which helped them decide to upgrade an existing water-treatment plant.
"We're anticipating that it will be fully operational in the summer of 2018," said Burrowes.
Pauingassi officials could not be reached for confirmation.
A third long-term advisory in the province, at Lake Manitoba First Nation, was registered on April 6, 2016, and ended May 8, 2017.
The government’s 2016 budget pledged $1.8 billion over five years, an unprecedented amount of long-term funding to tackle the issue. But Burrowes says actually getting out the door is a complicated process.
"It's not a situation that can be resolved overnight in most cases," he said. "That's the challenge for us, because water's critical; it really is the basis of life."
INAC keeps tabs on drinking-water advisories through annual reports in which tribal councils list their infrastructure needs. The department then funds a process led by the council to study the problem, and find a contractor to fix the problems.
Only public drinking water falls under INAC’s financial responsibility. Private establishments, such as stores and gas stations, are included in the advisories list, and INAC pays to monitor but not solve them.
Bolduc says water issues on Manitoba reserves are generally easier to solve than in the three provinces that make up the bulk of Canada’s long-term drinking-water advisories.
She says the the remote reserves of Northern Ontario, which are harder to reach to do lab testing, while areas in Saskatchewan often lack contractors specializing in water infrastructure. In British Columbia, responsibility over drinking water has been largely devolved to tribal authorities.
Burrowes says Manitoba has a further advantage in the Circuit Rider program, a First Nations-led initiative that has tribal councils train water-plant operators to maintain and inspect their plants, which can spot problems early on.
He says his INAC colleagues are still dealing with a backlog of water advisories nationwide, and that it takes time to translate allocated funding into drinkable tap water. "There is a perception out there that government is not doing anything to address these issues," Burrowes said.
Zastre praised the Trudeau government, saying it takes an emotional toll to not have clean water at the ready.
"I'm just happy that the federal government is doing these things for First Nations, for a little reserve like us," he said.
But Shoal Lake 40, a reserve straddling the Ontario border along Indian Bay, has lacked drinking water since February 1997, despite serving as the source of Winnipeg’s drinking water since 1919. That’s when the reserve was made into an artificial island in order to hold an aqueduct.
Construction is underway for a road to the reserve, which Chief Erwin Redsky says won’t be fully completed until next year. He hopes the community gets clean water shortly after, something Ottawa’s promised them before, but there’s been no timeline set.
"We’re just 20 kilometres south of the Trans-Canada Highway. We're not physically isolated; we've been politically isolated," Redsky said.
Read more by Dylan Robertson.