Tracie Johnson grew up in Potlotek First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community in northeastern Nova Scotia. It’s one of hundreds of Indigenous communities across Canada that have grappled with water advisories. Growing up, sometimes the water was clean, sometimes it was brown, and sometimes it didn’t flow at all, Johnson said.
When the water was brown, community members had to travel to Saint Peters, a Cape Breton village about 10 minutes west by car, to do laundry; otherwise their white clothes would come out stained. Residents still used the tap water to shower and brush their teeth, Johnson said.
“They wouldn’t drink it or use it for cooking,” she said. “You’d go to the store, buy the 5-gallon jugs of water, or the band office had to give you water.”
The office had to set up portable showers when there was no water flowing at all.
But for the past two years, things have largely changed—for the better. Potlotek and other First Nation communities across the country’s Atlantic coast no longer have long-term water advisories (which only kick in after 12 months).
And last week, the federal government and 15 chiefs in the region signed a framework agreement that transfers control over water and wastewater systems to what could become Canada’s first independent, Indigenous-led water utility.
The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA), a body that’s been in the works since 2018, will be in charge of upgrading, managing, and maintaining water and wastewater services as early as 2022. It would support 4,500 Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik households and businesses in 15 First Nations communities, accounting for about 60 percent of First Nations living on reserves in the region.
“We are well-positioned for success with a utility established by First Nations, for First Nations,” said Potlotek First Nation Chief and chair of the AFNWA Wilbert Marshall. “There is still much work to do, but we look forward to continuing the relationship with the government of Canada to achieve our long-term goals.”
According to the chief, the government has consistently implemented subpar water systems in the community, often hiring the cheapest and worst quality labour to fix problems that arise.
Right now, the water is safe to drink and use, but who knows when that will change, Marshall said.
The latest water system, which has only been in place for a few months, has already had minor leaks, he said. Marshall hopes the AFNWA will act like a watchdog that can respond to water system issues and deliver high quality services quickly.
Marshall told VICE News his community is skeptical, because water has been shoddy on and off for decades. “Some also think they’re going to be paying for everything, but that’s wrong information,” Marshall said.
We’koqma’q First Nation Chief Rod Googoo did not sign on to the AFNWA because the water in his community is already adequate and he is working with Inverness County on wastewater treatment, he told VICE News.
When asked if he’d consider signing on in the future, Googoo said it’s unlikely.
“As of right now, we’re good,” Googoo said. “Besides, who’s going to pay for it (in the future)? Will the bands have to individually pay for it to function or will they be putting metres on peoples houses?”
The authority has asked for $231 million over 25 years for capital investments, plus $11 million annually to cover operation and maintenance.
So far, the federal ministry Indigenous Services Canada is providing $2.5 million to establish the authority, by funding consultations and hiring Indigenous staff.
ISC already covers about 80 percent of maintenance and operating costs of water and wastewater systems in Indigenous communities.
The ministry did not respond when asked why it hasn’t committed to the AFNWA’s ask yet.
Marshall said he’s also expecting the water authority to employ local Indigenous experts.
“Many of our guys here are certified. We have smart, trained people,” Marshall said. “No one can run and maintain our areas better than we can.”
Kelsey Leonard, an enrolled citizen of the Shinnecock Nation and postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University who specializes in Indigenous water governance, said the AFNWA is “unprecedented and historic.”
“We really are starting to see First Nations take advantage of our innovation and skill set as well as our sovereignty for the betterment of our communities,” Leonard said. “We are no longer going to accept the status quo when it comes to our water.”
Water and sanitation management rarely includes Indigenous voices, so even when Potlotek First Nation residents voice suspicion of the AFNWA it’s a sign the initiative is creating more room for Indigenous expertise and perspectives, Leonard said.
“Skepticism is warranted and any type of innovation should come with a healthy bout of it—that’s how we keep people accountable,” Leonard said.
Typically, when Indigenous communities seek funding, they have to apply for funding through grants, which pits communities against each other, Leonard said.
“You’re making marginalized populations fight for limited resources and it fosters oppression and colonialism,” Leonard said, adding that the AFNWA could become a global model for Indigenous water sovereignty as long as Ottawa honours the proposed funding model attached to it.
As sea levels continue to rise, they pose an additional threat to drinking water quality as well as sanitation. Extreme climate events like coastal storms or floods can introduce new contaminants and overwhelm sanitation systems, sewage, as well as drinking water systems, Leonard said.
“Indigenous communities won’t have to wait for a government to develop a climate change-specific response. They can do that themselves,” she said.
There are more than 100 long-term drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities across Canada, but for now, the AFNWA is the only authority of its kind being proposed.
Critically, Indigenous peoples need to be “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to water systems management, both in terms of exposing problems and implementing solutions, said John Millar, the executive director of Water First, a charitable organization that advocates for clean water in Indigenous communities.
“There’s been an unacceptable water crisis in First Nations communities for far too long,” said Millar, who is not Indigenous himself. “If this proves to be a sound framework that other First Nations can learn from and possibly adapt or tweak, that can move the entire national context in a positive way.”
Johnson said she’s happy with the prospect of her childhood home participating in the initiative—as long as the attached promises are fulfilled.
Canada has the third largest supply of freshwater in the world, so an ongoing water crisis doesn’t make any sense, she said.
“This is Canada,” Johnson said with a sigh. “We should all have clean drinking water.”
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