This piece was written as part of MacEwan University’s partnership with the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University.

Two First Nations communities are reporting concern in water treatment operations, with issues including contamination due to nearby industries, inadequate funding, and suppression of autonomy by the federal government.

Tony Netro is the Primary Water Operator for Taku River Tlingit First Nation, which is located in Atlin, a small community in northern British Columbia. Netro faces several issues with the operation of his water treatment facility, most of which are caused by the Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), which is run by the federal government.

Taku River
The Taku River. Photo from B.C. Parks. 

Netro has been working without a holiday for over 10 years, because he is the only water operator that lives in Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Netro feels overworked and underpaid: on call 24 hours a day, yet he only makes around $500 a week. “It doesn’t leave much change for me to go on any kind of vacation, let alone save up for a college graduation present for my daughter,” says Netro.

The plant went through five operators in the two years prior to Netro’s arrival. He understands their frustration, like waiting for delayed supplies, lack of funding by the ISC, and ISC refusing to grant them full autonomy over their water treatment. “We should be able to regulate it ourselves. We don’t need people to hold our hands,” said Netro. Any concerns Netro has brought up the ISC have gone unheard.

These concerns include mining that began during the 19th century in B.C. and continues today. Netro believes the mining may have added mercury to the drinking water. The wastewater plant is also in need of upgrading, as it was originally built in 1898.

Netro worries that when he is gone, there will be no one else to run the plant, due to a lack of education provided on about water treatment facilities. “You don’t ever hear anybody talk about the water shop,” said Netro.

Netro isn’t the only water operator that has found issues in water treatment administration. Alfred Iron is the Director of Public Works in Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, which is located about 340 km northwest of Prince Albert, Sask. Iron similar struggles with the ISC, like funding. “When we get them certified, our operators, and they get more pay out in Alberta or in the mines, then we lose [operators] to there,” said Iron.

Iron says the restrained ISC funding makes it hard to stay on top of proactive upgrades. First Nations communities that are not in a state of emergency will be passed over for funding. He echoed Netro in his issues with nearby industries affecting his water, but he believes it to be a result of the tar sands, which may be adding sulfur to the groundwater.

First Nations’ water rights have long been an issue in Canada. Who owns the water is a complex issue, and often leads to tense situations as governments try to retain colonial control over First Nations communities, like Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta. The mistreatment been more severe for some First Nations than others, like the Neskantaga First Nation, which was on a boil water advisory for 25 years. When their water treatment pump shut down, and the community had to evacuate, ISC refused to provide financial help, stating that the malfunctioning pump posed “no immediate health or safety risks.”

The Trudeau government has tried to solve the widespread issues by investing “$1.8 billion over five years for on-reserve water and wastewater infrastructure,” but some, including Netro, believe that this is a lazy and ineffective solution. There needs to be “a plan in place for operation, not just building water shops,” Netro said.

Despite the roadblocks the Canadian government has imposed on them, both Netro and Iron feel a need to continue to provide safe water. Iron recalls one of the last things his mother-in-law said to him: “Water is good, it’s the best thing in the world, she said.”