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The depths of Canada's chronic Indigenous community water problems start at the top, say experts

Contractor calls out Indigenous Services Canada's 'broken' procurement and delivery models, advocates for First Nation-industry partnerships
(Sundance Construction photo)

Access to clean, drinkable water is a widely acknowledged basic human right. 

But Canada seems to be running on two different sets of standards when it comes to executing on sewer and water treatment projects in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, according to one expert panel this week.

In a June 27 webinar dubbed The Endless Indigenous Water Controversy, hosted by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, a public policy think-tank, panellists from Western Canada shared stories of frustration and inspiration of what needs to be done to bring Indigenous community water services up to national standards..

When water treatment plant construction projects go sideways, moderator Ken Coates noted, the media narrative is usually to lay blame on the First Nations when quite often it’s caused by circumstances beyond their control.

Jocelyn Burzuik, president of Sundance Construction, an Indigenous-led contracting firm in Sandy Hook, Man., opened with a dire prediction that despite millions of dollars in government investments, the problems with water and sewer projects on First Nation and Métis communities haven't gotten any better and will only get worse. 

She described a "devolving situation" with the life cycle running out on existing systems that eventually will "cascade into one great big huge failure of systems across the entire country, and I don't think people are aware of what's coming."

"We haven't made progress; we've lost ground."

The panellists questioned Ottawa's role, particularly Indigenous Services Canada, as a capable middle man in being able to deliver these community development projects in an efficient and expeditious way.

Burzuik categorized the agency’s method of procurement and delivery as "broken."

It’s structured around a "cottage industry" of government-preferred consultants and engineers, she said, that bleed off huge amounts of project dollars before the funds ever reach the construction site.

"Many dollars often never leave Ottawa."

Often these firms serve up "garbage" water and sewer project designs with automated systems so complex, contractors struggle for months to commission the plants. If the contractors are confounded, she wondered, how can remote First Nations be expected to run these "monstrosities?"

Government timelines to get a water treatment plant into the project planning queue is four to five years, never mind the budgeting process.

Then there are the delays after the contracts are awarded and the construction teams mobilized.

Bureaucrats and engineers start slashing the budget, she said, resulting in tradespeople not getting paid in a timely fashion for work completed and projects coming to a halt.

"Our government has a terrible track record in paying the bills, either on time or not at all."

She called the government delivery model 50 per cent of the reason projects go sideways.

On the consultation that does take place, Burzuik finds government officials are tone deaf to the wishes and needs of the community. 

Melissa Mbarki, a policy analyst and outreach coordinator with the institute, agreed communities usually don’t know what’s being planned until the day the construction crews drive up.

It wasn’t until Mbarki started working in the Alberta oil and gas industry that she realized how fast large-scale infrastructure developments can actually get done, outside of government oversight.

Her company was working with a county government on a $55-million potable water project that involved drilling wells and connecting them to water treatment facilities. 

While her community of Mushowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan was under a water advisory and a three-year wait to change out a filtration system at their plant, in the same time frame the county drilled more than 200 wells and ran connections to more than 1,000 homes and businesses on a project that finished on time and on budget.

Bringing clean, safe and reliable drinking water to Indigenous communities doesn't always require a complicated fix. The solution can be as close by as the width of a road.

Growing up on reserve, Mbarki spoke about the "toxic cycle" of living through three water advisories, one lasting five years.  

She endured skin rashes as a child that doctors couldn't diagnose, leaving her on antibiotics for seven years.

Like many places in Saskatchewan, her First Nation community is situated next to a so-called "dying town," a non-Indigenous community which can number as few as 10 inhabitants. Yet the town has a fully functioning, but underutilized, water treatment plant with enough capacity to serve both communities. 

But there's been no attempt by government to connect the plant to the reserve by pipe.

"They're literally right across the road from us," said Mbarki.

People on reserve have to resort to using cisterns, large water storage containers next to their homes.

On a weekly scheduled run, a tanker truck delivers water to every residence. A broken-down truck could mean the reserve goes without a refill for a couple of weeks. People often run out of water. Large families must ration. 

"This should not be happening,” said Mbarki, when the practical solution is to install a pipeline with connections to every home on reserve.

Coates mentioned in his travels through northern Scandinavia, countries like Norway, Finland and Sweden seem to follow simple policies; every community, regardless of location, deserves the same quality of infrastructure. 

“We don’t have that standard in Canada, not even remotely close.”

Hank Siegel, an independent consultant for reconciliation, said his community of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba found a homegrown solution to alleviate a chronic drinking water problem.

They became an owner in the local pulp and paper mill. 

Siegel worked at the mill in the 1990s when the First Nation bought a block of shares to become an owner in the plant. 

A progressive-thinking mill manager approached Siegel on how the company could improve relations with the First Nation to put aside the bad blood that had been festering for 70 years. The mill had a terrible legacy of discharging untreated effluent into a river, rendering it undrinkable for the First Nation. 

Upstream of the mill was a water treatment plant. The mill manager authorized a water line to be constructed from the fresh water pool and extended into the reserve, piping in clean water.

There was some initial community blowback, Siegel recalled, with First Nation leadership being taunted as “traitors." But the solution was to participate as an owner and understand the industry.

Being a mill owner was key, he said. It lands you seat at the boardroom table and gives you say on environmental assessment decisions.

"We were practising reconciliation without knowing we were doing it,” Siegel joked.

"It's important that we start being the solution to our own problems."

That example was not lost on Coates.

"First Nations governments have the capacity to see this interconnectedness in ways that outside agencies, who are often caught up in different silos, really couldn’t do.”

Despite Sagkeeng First Nation’s “template for success,” the panellists said Indigenous Services Canada has shown no inclination to follow suit.

The panellists agreed most successful Indigenous community developments they see in Western Canada are the ones that involve direct contact between private industry and Indigenous communities, beyond government involvement.

Burzuik said Indigenous-led joint venture partnerships should be encouraged and contracted as design-build projects with fixed budgets and completion dates, all done in a "collaborative fashion" instead of a "combative" one to keep projects on track.

Mbarki adds more needs to be done to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers to Indigenous people to build local capacity and come up with community solutions.

Burzuik said she worked with Manitoba Hydro to launch an innovative $100-million program where Indigenous members learn on the job how operating systems on projects, like water treatment plants, actually work by being involved in their construction.

She said there needs to be better “outside-the-box” engineering solutions that communities can support, instead of Ottawa staying the course in building massively expensive treatment plants that are too complex to operate and maintain.

“We need to think about off-grid, simpler, robust engineering solutions, and we need the communities to be part of that.”

She questioned if the feds are even interested in implementing smart engineering solutions considering the depth of talent at Canadian universities that’s not being tapped into.

"We're not encouraging the research anymore. It's no longer an attractive field to get into and we're losing both tradespeople and engineering professionals that really know this stuff.”

Mbarki emphasized Ottawa needs to show accountability. Put deadline dates on when the current water advisories in Indigenous communities across Canada will reach zero.

But they likely never will, she said, not with some advisories hitting the 20- and 30-year mark. There's no motivation by government to do that.

If government can't do that, Mbarki said, they should relinquish their top-down authority and provide First Nations with the funding and the autonomy to find their own solutions and choose the engineering partners they want to work with.

"That probably is our only way forward."