First Nations drinking water has had a history of infamy in Canada. In comparison to drinking water off-reserve, the quality of on-reserve water is largely unacceptable.

Off-reserve, the responsibility for water and wastewater lies within the jurisdiction of provincial and territorial governments. On-reserve, pursuant to Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, the federal government has fiduciary obligations to Canada’s First Nations, the lands reserved for them and consequently, exclusive jurisdiction over laws pertaining to First Nations and their reserves, such as water.

However, as noted by a paper on safe water for First Nations communities conducted by John Graham, leader of the Institute on Governance’s work on Aboriginal governance, at the federal level, there is no effective legislative base for regulating potable water on reserves. Due to this legislative void, no governing body has been accountable for First Nations potable water, resulting in the lack of appropriate and timely response to First Nations water crises and presenting subsequent problems such as the shortage of trained First Nations water operators.

Certification for First Nations operators became mandatory in May of 2003, with announcement of the First Nations Water Management Strategy (FNWMS). Following the announcement, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) began funding education programs, most prominently, the Circuit Rider Training Program (CRTP).

Circuit Rider Training Program

Described by INAC as one-on-one training for First Nations operators, CRTP is a fully-funded program provided free of charge to First Nations interested in contracting its services.

The circuit rider or trainers who deliver the program are water operators in possession of 5-30 plus years of experience and a minimum level II water or wastewater certification. These trainers are responsible for and travel to certain geographical areas and communities to provide training.

“We bring the training to First Nations, rather than pull them out [of their community],” says Helen Jacobsen, Circuit Rider manager at the First Nations Alberta Technical Services Advisory Group.

Before training begins, trainers work side-by-side with communities, conducting assessments of facilities and operators to tailor accredited training modules to the needs and aptitudes of each trainee. Training sessions occur four to five times a year, with each session lasting between a period of three to five days, depending on travel time and on a circuit rider’s availability.

From the program, First Nations operators learn how to operate, service, and maintain drinking water and wastewater system in their communities, earning Continuing Education Units towards their certification.

“We’re just hoping to help,” says Matthew Hoppe, technical manager at the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation, provider of the CRTP in Ontario. “We just want to build the program to meet community needs and help First Nations operators maintain drinking water for the people.”

Circuit riders, besides training water operators, also become resources, mentors and moral support for operators in remote locations.

“The best thing is to build relationships and trust,” says Hoppe, “and the only way to develop that trust is by being in the community and being available. After a relationship is forged, the training comes easily.”

If a First Nation requires more than the CRTP can offer, training is also provided by the Safe Water Operations Program. Under this program, an independent service provider is hired to run a water system for a First Nation and to mentor the local operator until the community is capable of running the system itself with continued support for local circuit riders. Also funded by INAC, the exact services funded are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence

Barry Strachan, program manager at Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence, supports the CRTP and what it’s trying to achieve, but he also believes it is only one piece of a national puzzle involving many other training providers. One of these pieces is Keewaytinook.

Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence is an incorporated, not for profit, fee-for-service business, meaning “we keep our services at a level where all we’re interested in is paying for the lights and for salaries,” says Strachan. “Our chief interest as a peer economic development enterprise is in building capacities in the community.”

The centre began in 1995, when Strachan first became employed by the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council to provide advisory services in Operation and Maintenance of public utilities and infrastructure. It’s wholly owned by the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council, or Northern Chiefs Council based in Red Lake, with its founding members being six First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario.

At that time, this community of Northern Chiefs had nothing to operate or maintain. It was a remote access community with no utility service, no community power service, not even telephone access.

Due to the lack of services, the Tribal Council was high on INAC’s list to receive infrastructure. However, when infrastructure projects were completed in 1999, Strachan recalls, “It was immediately apparent that, although there was a lot of money at that time to build things, there wasn’t any investment being made in the people left to operate these things.”

“Our chiefs saw that as a priority. If we’re going to get all this new equipment and infrastructure, we want our staff to be qualified to run and operate it. We saw that quality operators were critical and we worked to fill that gap.”

Pursuing this vision, training began in 1999 at a temporary location in Red Lake. Negotiations soon followed to build a permanent training facility, led by Strachan. Though it was a long process, Strachan was ultimately successful, and the present centre was built in Dryden, the central location for the Ojibwe of Treaty 2 and Cree of Treaty 9.

Now training 200 operators annually, both First Nations and municipal, through director-approved and Ministry of Education certified programming, Keewaytinook is the training centre of choice in Northwestern Ontario.

Besides training in the classroom, Keewaytinook brings its programming to the community in an attempt to address two common challenges facing remote First Nations communities, the first being travel and the second, the limited resources of the community to pay for quality training.

“Now, certainly, we still have a lot of work to do,” Strachan says, “but we’ve achieved a lot and we can still do more.”

Thomson Rivers University’s Water Treatment Technology Diploma Program

Thomson Rivers’ (TRU’s) program is one that hopes education will help water operators do and be more.

Established in 2004 in response to the O’Connor Inquiry, TRU designed the program to facilitate increasing demand for the mandatory and ongoing education and certification of water operators. In its present form, the program is the result of consultations with INAC, First Nations water operators and the British Columbia Water and Wastewater Association, to better target the needs of First Nations.

“As with all operators, First Nations or otherwise, it is very difficult to work full-time while maintaining your certification,” says program director, Satwinder Paul, who further remarks that operators simply do not receive enough opportunities to keep up with their certification.

To address challenges of training and certification and to minimize disruption to the personal lives and the professional duties of its students, the program combines distance delivery learning and in-class, face-to-face instruction.

Structurally, the program divides the semester into three delivery units where students meet six times a year. Being a diploma program, students learn, not only the necessary technical skills in chemistry and technology, they learn fundamentals such as why water is being treated.

“INAC says, ‘we have a mandate to train them,’ but training is very short term,” says Paul. “This is getting educated, getting a diploma no one can ever take away, a diploma that will hold anywhere in North America.”

“When you’re getting training, it happens sporadically. You only take whatever is available, it is not comprehensive,” says Paul. “With an education, [operators] should be able to deal with any issue.”

Darrell Bennett, water treatment plant supervisor at Kamloops Indian Band and an alumnus of the first semester at TRU’s program, agrees with Paul’s emphasis on higher education.

“A lot of that infrastructure money is good to update [the facilities],” Bennett says, “but it’s only as good as the fella that’s running that plant and what his knowledge is.”

“It’s knowing how to run your plant efficiently,” Bennett says, adding that education “leads to the operator being self-sufficient, not having to depend on the circuit rider and being able to handle things on his own.” For Bennett, this confidence as a water operator is where education has its impact.

Continuing challenges

According to INAC’s most recent First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan Progress Report, 791 out of 1226 First Nations water systems operators are now certified at the first level of certification or higher, a 23 per cent increase from January of 2008 to March 2009.

As the First Nations water operator certification gap closes, other issues must be addressed simultaneously to ensure solutions are lasting in the fight for safe and sustable drinking water for First Nations.

For example, with certification on the rise, John Graham worries it will inadvertently lead to an increasing turnover rate as operators who are trained and certified pursue higher-paying opportunities off-reserve.

“The water operator job is not really elevated on the totem pole where it should be,” says Helen Jacobsen, “and a lot of wages fall out from that.”

“When you look at the net worth of a municipal certified operator versus the net worth of an operator in a First Nation, there is a disparity,” echoes Strachan.

“I can foresee, as we work through this, that it could become a problem, because municipalities have a need for this type of worker and are able to pay more. We really need to find a way to make sure these folks are challenged at home and they are paid a competitive salary so we can keep them at home.”

Since 2003, the government of Canada has renewed its pledge to ensure potable water for First Nations, announcing additional commitments in 2006, with the Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nations Communities, and in 2008, with the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan (FNWWAP). In total, from 2003-2008, spending on First Nations water and wastewater came to $1.6 billion.

As of January 2010, the funding sources for water and wastewater investment include $138 million from the 2008 FNWWAP and $69.9 million from the Canadian Economic Action Plan, with an additional $197.5 million in the department’s annual allocation.

When it comes to funding, Satwinder Paul feels it’s a shared responsibility. “It’s both INAC providing enough resources and the community wanting to use the resources properly.”

Beyond that, Strachan also believes it’s also an issue of having consistent standards. “Facilities in First Nations are not necessarily built to the same standards as municipalities in Ontario because there are no standards.”

By the same token, as Richard Jock, Assembly of First Nations chief executive officer, warned when addressing the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in the Proceedings of May 16, 2007, “You can have the highest standards, but if there is no systematic way to get to them, then it will be meaningless.”

Tina Chu is a Toronto-based freelance writer.


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