Canada Veldon Coburn: Fixing First Nations water quality is about more than flashy new infrastructure
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Up to now, the federal government’s attempts to bring clean drinking water to First Nations have been dominated by slick photo-ops to show off the expensive new infrastructure that has been put in place. But once the cameras are turned off and the politicians have gone home, many communities have been left in the lurch.
Though the federal Liberals failed to live up to their 2015 campaign promise to end all First Nations boil water advisories within five years, they have had some success solving water and wastewater woes with large, expensive capital assets. This response is not altogether misplaced, as infrastructure and technology are essential for clean water.
COVID protocol-related absences: 04/27/21
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But this policy approach is, in many ways, akin to buying a new car every time you get a flat tire. Ministers have made big purchases, but rarely provided the necessary resources to run them and support their upkeep.
However, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who has been at the post since late 2019, appears to understand the critical importance of operations and maintenance (O&M). First Nations officials — both elected leaders and managers of public utilities — have been clamouring about this issue for as long as I can remember.
In my previous career, I was an analyst on the water and wastewater file at what is now Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). Ten years ago, in April 2011, the department released the. The extensive study highlighted the need for significant investments in water infrastructure to address decades of neglect, as well as costing estimates to operate and maintain the infrastructure.
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Despite the dreadful picture that the 2011 national assessment painted, the previous Conservative government did little to remediate water conditions in First Nations. The Liberals, however, have made remarkable investments since tabling their first budget in 2016. In the last five years, the Liberals have spent about $2 billion on water and wastewater and, just last December, Miller announced an additional $1.5 billion.
These figures are impressive. This level of expenditure on First Nations water quality has never been seen before. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are not much different than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in substance, even though they’re spending much more money.
Like the Conservatives, the Liberals seem to be seduced by the same promises of photo-ops, ribbon-cutting and news releases that accompany the completion of pricey infrastructure projects. The Indigenous Services Canada website is filled with celebratory announcements and provides a veryof infrastructure projects and investments. It’s all a bit self-congratulatory and pandering.
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When a new water treatment plant is built, or an old one breaks down, politicians see it as an opportunity to warm up to embittered Indigenous communities. The problem begins the moment the asset is turned on and the minister has left the community after the pomp and photographs.
Oftentimes, communities are given few resources to properly operate and maintain the new treatment facilities. First Nations authorities find themselves scrambling to find the revenue to pay for the estimated 30- to 50-year life cycle of their new treatment plants. The problem is that ISC takes a laissez-faire, “you’ll figure it out,” approach to First Nations water infrastructure.
Water and wastewater treatment plants are supposed to be run by certified operators. It’s not that First Nations lack people with the skills or intelligence necessary to run these plants (I have heard stories of First Nations operators who have taught themselves to run high-tech water treatment plants without any formal training); it’s that ISC often doesn’t provide enough funding to properly train and pay people to operate them.
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In some First Nations, funding barely supports part-time operations at wages that are only marginally above the minimum wage. According to ISC’s own data, a full 26 per cent of First Nations public water systems are run without a fully certified operator.
Just like with a car, things can, and often do, go wrong, even with brand new facilities. And when things break down at multimillion-dollar treatment plants, the cost of repairs can exhaust a community’s annual infrastructure budget.
This is especially true for projects that are ill-conceived or use unproven technologies. Around the year 2000, Kebaowek First Nation was given a shiny new wastewater treatment plant. The plant used technology designed for treating animal waste. As it happens, treating human wastewater is very different from farming.
The cost of the filtration material was astronomical and had to be replaced every three years. The plant barely lasted its estimated lifespan and was replaced by conventional technology in 2017. Still, Kebaowek can barely afford to staff its new facility, and has been forced to divert funds from other important areas, such as housing.
Behind the precarity of operating water infrastructure is an outdated policy that should never have been implemented. ISC has long used a funding formula that provides First Nations with a mere 80 per cent of their estimated operating and maintenance costs.
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It is little wonder that clean drinking water and safe wastewater treatment remains a challenge when Ottawa knowingly undermines the maintenance of these expensive investments. As a result of this policy, a significant proportion of water infrastructure is at risk of premature “rust out,” and increased service disruptions.
The good news is that Miller seems to understand this problem: his announcement of $1.5 billion in December 2020 provides over $600 million for O&M costs over six years. More importantly, Miller has suggested that ISC will be moving towards covering 100 per cent of formula-funded O&M costs. This is good news, but Miller also needs to consider adequately funding operator salaries, and not just at the current level, as it is often half of what they could earn off-reserve.
Veldon Coburn is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies.
NHL's COVID protocol-related absences for May 6, 2021 .
Players in the protocol are: Colorado's Devan Dubnyk and Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov.Calgary – TBA (previously Josh Leivo)