Anyone who read the federal government’s report published in July last year knows that the situation is dire. As reported in “Let the Waters Flow,” (p. 20), the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems, which was written by consulting engineers, found that 39% of the water supply systems and 14% of wastewater systems on First Nations reserves were at high risk of being compromised.
The numbers, of course, don’t really paint the picture. For that all it takes is a few Google searches for Attawapiskat or Kashechewan. There you will find photographs and videos that give a glimpse of the deplorable reality of those who struggle in some remote communities. You need to watch not just the brief semi-sanitized CBC news footage, but the gritty, hand-held camera version that lasts for 10 minutes. www.youtube.com/watch?v=6abZ0LFT5CQ
As I interviewed people from First Nations for the article on page 20, I realized just how distant I am from their problems. Cottaging with rudimenary services can be fun for a while. But how would you like to be parents with small children crowded in a small cabin without running water or a toilet when the temperature outside is minus 20C? In Attawapiskat, three-quarters of the population of about 2,000 are under the age of 35, and one-third of the people are under age 19. There are few jobs on reserves so there is little chance of many of these young people being able to “help themselves.”
Canada’s relations with First Nations are extremely complex and I’m a novice at even beginning to understand them. But as I listened to these people I started to grasp some of the more nuanced sensitivities they feel. Irving Leblanc of the Assembly of First Nations, for example, told me he is not happy with the way the government has handled Bill S-7, the proposed Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act. Essentially, the government said: “Here is our favourite option, what do you think of it?” Leblanc felt this seemed more like “information giving” than true consultation.
The very structure of the fiduciary relationship between Canada and its First Nations leads to a father-child exchange, with the government ultimately the one in control. First Nations on the other hand don’t see themselves as children or beholden to the government. They are the original fathers and mothers of this land and they should be fully engaged and instrumental in organizing the provision of their water and wastewater systems.
Despite the ongoing problems, good things are happening. Engineers and First Nations people who I spoke to all felt that generally water and wastewater services on First Nations had improved over the past decade.
Another positive sign is that First Nations engineering companies are taking things into their own hands and marketing their services to aboriginal communities. Some of these communities are now amassing enough capital from natural resources to start building their own developments and infrastructure. And several First Nations engineering firms are mentoring engineering students, all in the hope of nurturing a future generation of indigenous engineers who can really understand the problems.Bronwen Parsons