It was a time of celebration and relief in Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on Wednesday morning, as the community that borders southeastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario marked the opening of a new water treatment facility and the end of nearly 24 years without clean running water.
But more than 30 other First Nations are still fighting for access to clean drinking water that most Canadians take for granted, including two in northern Manitoba that have been under long-term drinking water advisories for years.
Shamattawa First Nation has been under a drinking water advisory since 2018, while Tataskweyak Cree Nation has been under an advisory since 2017.
Both have water treatment plants, but neither facility can provide clean drinking water.
According to the federal government’s website, upgrades to the plants were recently completed.
But band Coun. Nathan Neckoway says even with upgrades to the Tataskweyak plant, which was built in the 1980s, the water is clean enough to use only for household activities such as doing laundry but is not safe to drink.
That means the community, about 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, must still rely on bottled water.
“To me, that’s not right,” Neckoway said, especially when surrounding lands are used as a source of power and profits for people to the south.
He points to Manitoba Hydro’s nearby Keeyask Generating Station project as an example.
While people in northern Manitoba live with the impacts of “some of the megaprojects that the government throws at us and puts on our river systems … we live the third-world country life,” Neckoway said.
He said issues with the water treatment plant need to be addressed, but he’d also like the federal and provincial governments to do more to protect the land and water resources from industrial pollution.
“We are supposed to be living in the North, where it’s rich in resources like water, land, but we are surrounded by a body of water that we can’t even allow our kids to swim in,” Neckoway said, referring to neighbouring Split Lake and the Nelson River that flows into it.
Complex — and expensive — issue
Kerry Black, an assistant professor in the civil engineering department at the University of Calgary, has been studying drinking water advisories on First Nations for the better part of a decade.
She said building a water treatment plant for a First Nation is one thing, but keeping it operational is another battle.
“The majority of people don’t actually understand just how much money it costs to provide them with safe, clean drinking water,” she said.
Many of these plants have been chronically underfunded for decades, meaning that any federal government that wants to address the issue has to play catch-up, Black said.
“Sometimes the money that you’re putting in, it is literally a drop in the bucket…. So the money required to bring those systems up to par to even start this conversation is massive.”
It’s a point not lost on federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.
Speaking in Shoal Lake 40 earlier this week, he said he recognizes the need for continuous funding to make sure these assets don’t deteriorate.
Last year, the Liberals announced funding that will cover 100 per cent of operations and maintenance of water and wastewater assets on First Nations.
In the 2015 federal election, the Liberals ran on a pledge to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations by this year — a goal that hasn’t been met as the party seeks re-election on Monday.
There are currently 51 advisories still in effect in 32 different communities in Canada. In 2015, there were 133 advisories in 93 communities.
Miller said the Liberals are still committed to meeting their goal if re-elected, although he wouldn’t set a new timeline, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays.
“There are a number of communities coming up … [where] we’re looking forward to lifting [advisories] in really short order,” he said Wednesday. “We’re really down to the short strokes.”
The Conservatives, New Democrats, Green Party and People’s Party of Canada have also pledged to end boil-water advisories as part of their campaign platforms.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says it’s unfortunate the Liberals didn’t reach their deadline.
But he says he doesn’t think it’s an issue of party politics or leadership, but a stagnant bureaucracy “that seems to have systemic racism and far too much … discretion on how things move forward.”
“Many of our nations have had willing partners. They have the expertise and the acumen to move forward,” Dumas said.
“But the system itself is geared to trying to protect itself, self-preservation, so when the resources come into the region, unfortunately many of these obstructionists are in the way.”
Regardless of which party is elected on Monday, Dumas said he will work with the federal government to ensure it makes good on the pledge to end the advisories.