Critics voice concerns over privatization of First Nations drinking water

(Above: The drinking water reservoir for Potlotek First Nation in Nova Scotia.)

Trina Roache
APTN National News
In his office down the road from Elsipogtog’s water tower, Simon Osmond turns on the tap. He won’t drink the water here. After all of the work he’s done studying water management systems on First Nations – he doesn’t trust it’s safe.

Osmond has worked on water issues on First Nations in the Atlantic region for years. He says the aging infrastructure, lack of training for water operators and a lack of money from Ottawa all add up to create a dangerous situation.

“What about when a First Nation community actually becomes a Walkerton,” says Osmond, who a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations. “I don’t want that to be the basis for when the federal government will invest.”

Ottawa has touted the $323 million it set aside in its Economic Action Plan in 2014 – money to be spread over two years, for all First Nations in Canada, for water.

But it’s a drop in the bucket according to experts who say that is the amount needed to just get Atlantic bands up to par.

Nationally, they have pegged it $4.7 billion.

Of the 23 bands in the East Coast, that operate their own drinking water systems, 21 are considered high risk.

As of March, 135 First Nation communities across Canada were under a boil water advisory.

The federal government passed the Safe Drinking water for First Nations Act in 2013. Regulations are expected within the next year.

“Enforcing regulations on reserve, where you have deteriorating conditions, to me, doesn’t make sense,” says Osmond. “How are First Nations supposed to improve it if they’re not getting the resources to manage it?”

One option that government is looking at is P3s, a public-private partnership.

Osmond has pitched the idea of a First Nations Water Authority (FNWA) for bands in the Atlantic. The project is called the First Nations Clean Water Iniative.

The band would do a temporary surrender the land and assets tied to the water systems to the FNWA. In turn, FNWA – a group of engineers, operators and a First Nations board – would oversee water and wastewater operations for the bands. And under a P3 model, FNWA would sub-lease the land to the private company over a 25 year agreement.

Emma Lui, with the Council of Canadians, said this model doesn’t have a great track record.

“P3s in other regions, in other countries, other municipalities, have caused some serious problems in price increases for water,” says Lui. “We see a decrease in water quality.”

Lui argues that privatization can cost governments more in the long run.

“The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act calls for high standards which is something that we want,” says Lui. “But without the appropriate funding, First Nations are in some ways forced to enter into these P3 agreements and later down the road they experience problems with the P3 agreement and want to cancel it the Canadian Government could see themselves with a trade challenge or trade lawsuit.”

Others see giving up land, even as a lease, as a bad road to go down.

“Once you privatize it then you’re losing your control on the other hand,” says Albert Marshall. “We should be doing just the opposite, aboriginal people should be seeking water rights.”

Marshall is a Mi’kmaw Elder on the Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton. He’s spent years working to protect the water quality of the Bras d’Ors Lakes.

“We can subsist with little parcels of land but we cannot live without water,” says Marshall. “So water should become our inherent right. And in our case we have to protect it for the next seven generations.”

Some think the model may leave First Nations paying for their own drinking water.

“I’ll say no,” said Potlotek’s Chief Wilbert Marshall. “Why should we pay for water? We didn’t agree to be put on reservations and stuck here.”

What happens in the Atlantic could be a template for how the regulations for First Nations’ drinking water roll out across the country.

And the questions are pouring in.

Wilbert Marshall has heard from other First nations leaders across Canada.

“Is it going to be privatized? Will you be paying for your water? So you have to give up your inventory and all that? Whose responsibility is it going to be? Whose neck is on the line? All the same questions we had,” he says.

Charlie Sock has been the water operator of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick for 38 years. The pipes he’s working with are much older than that. He shows off a piece of cast iron pipe that he had to replace after a water main break; a common occurrence.

“This pipe was installed in 1967, so do your math!” says Sock.

He said the buck should stop with Ottawa.

“They’re trying to approach it with a third party that comes in and funds the upgrades and we pay them for the next 25 years,” he says. “I mean it seems like Indian affairs is just dumping us off on the third party. And what are we going to have in 25 years, something that’s 25 years old?”

Sock also worries one lease would just lead to another.

“It’s just as if we’re talking about the 1969 white paper policy all over again,” he says. “Government washing their hands of us and we’ll be somebody else’s problem.”

The idea of a First Nations Water Authority hangs in the balance as Aboriginal Affairs will decide on funding at the end of the month.

“So it’s always ensuring that we push for something that is so sacred for us,” says Osmond. “Government doesn’t see it the same way we do. It becomes dollars and cents. The thing is, they’re doing it on the backs of First Nations health and safety.”

On the Potlotek First Nation in Nova Scotia, there’s a new report sitting on the desk of Chief Wilbert Marshall.

It details the dire problems with the band’s water and wastewater systems.

Positive tests for e-coli.

Aging infrastructure.

A water tower unsuitable for a Canadian climate (the water freezes in the winter) and the paint is peeling – even on the inside of the tower which holds the drinking water.

“I get phone calls from band members and they’re frustrated,” says the chief. “I don’t blame them. I am too. You can’t drink the water out of the tower and out of the tap, it’s brown or black.”

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