Alberta First Nations still lack consistent access to clean water

originally posted on July 14, 2016


Dozens of boil water advisories have been issued in Alberta First Nations communities, one after E. coli was detected at a daycare, others after mice were found in water tanks.

In all, Health Canada has issued 56 drinking water advisories affecting First Nations communities in Alberta since April 2015 — more than the 52 orders Alberta Health Services made for the rest of the province over the same time period.

Most of the Health Canada advisories have ended, but 11 remained in place as of May 31. Five have been in effect for at least five years.

It’s “a regular thing, nothing surprising anymore,” Sucker Creek First Nation Chief James Badger said of advisories in his community.

Water concerns prompted Sucker Creek and three other Alberta First Nations to launch a lawsuit in 2014 against the federal government, claiming Canada breached its duties to provide First Nations with safe drinking water.

That lawsuit will continue until their systems are upgraded, Badger said.

In its 2016 budget, the federal government committed $2.2 billion over five years to improve on-reserve water and waste water systems. So far, just 1.6 per cent of that, or $35.6 million, has been allocated to Alberta.

For just his community, Badger estimated upgrades would cost about $43 million.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said in a statement that only two of Alberta’s current boil water advisories relate to public water systems, and plans are in place to upgrade their treatment plants.

While Alberta might be doing better than some regions in the country — Ontario had 70 advisories in place as of May 31 — water issues remain chronic for some First Nations.

In Sucker Creek, concerns extend beyond the one boil water advisory Health Canada listed since Feb. 9, 2015, that affects the water tank at Ray’s Gas Bar in the community.

The First Nation has a water treatment plant, but limited water and waste water lines in its town site. Some homes and buildings, both in town and outside, require water to be trucked from the plant and stored in tanks where contamination can occur, Badger said.

The reasons for boil water advisories vary. A couple of years ago, there was cross-contamination of the town’s water and waste water lines and the community still doesn’t have sufficient funds for repairs, Badger said.

The Dene Tha’ First Nation faces similar issues in northwestern Alberta.

Chief Joe Pastion said he remembers hunting as a child with his father and being able to drink water straight from the land.

Today, access to clean drinking water is an ongoing concern for his three communities of Bushe River, Chateh and Meander River.

“We continue to buy store-bought water in order to cook and drink,” Pastion said.

Since 2012, there have been at least five Health Canada advisories issued for the Dene Tha’ communities, four of which related to specific cisterns.

In June, a 20-day drinking water advisory was issued for the daycare in Bushe River — Health Canada said its cistern was “damaged or inadequately maintained.” One advisory remains in place, since April 29, for the Bushe River semi-public food and gas cistern.

While clean drinking water is available from water treatment plants in High Level and 100 km north in Chateh, preventing re-contamination during distribution is an ongoing issue.

“We can’t keep up with the ongoing cleaning and maintenance of the water cisterns,” Pastion said, noting the community has applied for funding to improve maintenance.

Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor of public health at the University of Alberta, said some Alberta First Nations could also benefit from funding and training to develop comprehensive drinking water safety plans.

These plans look at the whole system, starting with the community’s source water.

Things such as resource development, urban areas and leaky sewage ponds have the potential to pollute drinking water, Ashbolt said.

Understanding these risks can help treatment plant operators ensure they’re monitoring for the types of contaminants to which their system is most vulnerable.

These plans should assess the water distribution system; about a third of all outbreaks occur because of contamination of clean drinking water during distribution, he said.

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