Canadian Consulting Engineer

Let the Waters Flow

June 1, 2012
By Bronwen Parsons

The YouTube video closes with a shot of a little boy standing in the narrow corridor of a construction trailer, crying and alone. He pushes against the wall and stares into the camera with hopeless eyes.

The YouTube video closes with a shot of a little boy standing in the narrow corridor of a construction trailer, crying and alone. He pushes against the wall and stares into the camera with hopeless eyes.

Behind him is a line of closed doors to rooms where 47 families live in units hardly bigger than a jail cell. At the end of the corridor are a couple of shared washrooms.

This is Attawapiskat last winter after the community called a state of emergency and the Red Cross came in. The First Nations of 2,000 near James Bay had a housing crisis, with scores of families — mostly young mothers with children — living in trailers, or worse, in wooden shacks and tents, with no running water and ditches for latrines. The particular families living in the trailer moved in two years ago after the sewage system backed up into their homes. Six years before, the community of Kashechewan also near James Bay had faced another much publicized crisis — theirs over contaminated drinking water which forced many of them onto planes and off the reserve.

If Canada’s First Nations communities are still suffering, is it because they don’t have adequate infrastructure to answer their basic needs? The federal government oversees First Nations through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (formerly “Indian Affairs,” or “INAC”), and certainly it pours billions of dollars into their water and wastewater infrastructure. The department reports that it spent approximately $2.5 billion between 2006 and 2013.

Aboriginal Affairs is concerned enough about the status of First Nations water supplies that it recently carried out the largest study ever of their systems. The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems published in July 2011 was led by Neegan Burnside, a consulting engineering company based in Orangeville, Ontario, that is majority aboriginal-owned.

Hundreds of other engineers from nine different companies were also engaged in the 20-month exercise. They visited and assessed 641 communities, representing 97% of First Nations communities in Canada. The government said this was “the most rigorous, comprehensive and independent evaluation of water and wastewater systems on reserve ever undertaken by a federal government.”

The study found that 39% of the 807 water systems inspected have high overall risk, while 34% were labelled having medium overall risk. Better results were found for sewage systems, though still, of the 532 systems inspected, 14% were found to be of high overall risk, and 51% were medium overall risk. (

Given these results, the situation is surely dire. The high-risk systems affect one quarter of the people who live on reserves.

Evidently there is much work ahead if Canada is to meet the UN’s 2010 mandate that says every human being has the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Since Canada’s national assessment was published, the government has moved ahead quickly with new legislation. John Duncan, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, introduced the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act to Parliament in February, saying this is a “vital step towards ensuring First Nations have the same health and safety protections for drinking water in their communities as other Canadians.”

But Irving Leblanc, acting director of housing and infrastructure for the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa, is not happy with Bill S-8 on several counts. For one thing, he is concerned that the legislation will tie First Nations to what is a hodgepodge of provincial water regulations: “Because of the different regulations and standards across the country,” says Leblanc, “it [Bill S-8] would not provide the same level of safety and support to all First Nations across Canada.”

Leblanc says the government also needs to provide more money. “We do acknowledge that recent budgets have provided for additional funding above the ‘A-Base,’ which is what we call the regular funding,” says Leblanc. However, he points out that the national assessment estimated that $4.7 billion would be needed in the next 10 years for water and wastewater systems, partly due to First Nations’ booming populations. Leblanc says: “Just simple math would show that the $165 million a year identified in the current budget simply will not do that.”

Even the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has admitted that they spend less on First Nations per capita for school education compared to the general Canadian population. Other reports say that services in general on First Nations are underfunded compared to the provincial averages. (National Post, John Ivison, Dec. 6/11)

One of the biggest problems for First Nations is having full-time trained operators for their water systems. Aboriginal Affairs supplies First Nations with 80% of the cost of operations and the community has to make up the difference. But First Nations aren’t allowed to collect taxes to make up the 20% shortfall. They are expected to apply user fees, but as Leblanc explains: “the economic situation in many communities does not allow for this as there is high unemployment. So that funding gap is never addressed.”

Operational issues aside, for Kevin Martin, CET, it’s important to see that water treatment plants get built and upgraded once a need has been identified. Martin is the owner and president of First Nations Engineering Services Limited, which is based in Ohsweken, on Martin’s own Six Nations Reserve of the Grand River (southwest of Brantford). FNESL is the only 100% native-owned engineering company in Ontario. Martin also owns another firm, K.L. Martin & Associates. The companies have designed several water treatment plants, including membrane filtration plants, and a large state-of-the-art facility under construction at the Six Nations reserve. Water infrastructure has made up about 60% of the engineers’ work in the past decade.

Recently, however, Martin has become concerned: “I don’t know why, but there seems to be a dramatic decrease in funding in Ontario this past year,” he says.

It’s possible that Aboriginal Affairs is waiting to see the outcome of pilot studies it launched this spring in Ontario before it releases money for big projects. (Aboriginal Affairs did not reply to our request for an interview.) The studies, being done with the provincial government and four First Nations, are focusing on small-scale water treatment technologies as an alternative to large centralized systems, especially for smaller, rural communities. Under this program Aboriginal Affairs is inviting proposals for “point of entry” systems installed outside individual homes, and for prefabricated communal systems. They even invite options for simply purchasing new water delivery trucks.

Engineering companies are not impressed by this move to decentralized services. Justin Gee, P.Eng., vice president of FNESL, says: “They [the government] want to try and stretch the dollars as far as they can, and that’s how they got into trouble in the first place with all those below-standard wooden shacks all over the country.”

Gee, who grew up near the Six Nations reserve, is one of the few native professional engineers in Ontario. He concedes that homes in many rural First Nations communities are spaced so far apart (Why would you live on top of each other when you have that much land?) that it doesn’t always make economic sense to put in extensive piped connections. But, he says, “Community buildings such as wellness centres and schools should all be serviced and should have potable water. And that’s what we try to do, to get water to the community buildings and to the school, and to give the centre of the community fire protection.”

In British Columbia, Freda Leong, P.Eng. is also not really a fan of decentralized systems, although she thinks they may be suitable where a First Nations community’s options are limited. She points out, however, that point-of-use systems may be tough to maintain if the water quality i
s variable.

Leong is with Associated Engineering and all her work is with First Nations communities. She says much of that work is doing “fix-ups” where she is called in to communities to sort out problems with their existing infrastructure. “I think “out of sight, out of mind” can come into play,” she says. “There are a lot of remote First Nations communities, and due to their remoteness their systems don’t always get the attention they should receive.”

Not aboriginal herself, Leong likes working with First Nations immensely. “It’s very different to working with a municipality. The people I work with are personally invested in the project. It’s not just a job. They don’t live somewhere else. This is their community, their friends and families. They want the project to be a success.”

A problem Leong finds is that some First Nations communities don’t know what different funding opportunities are available to them. That’s where their engineers can help, she says, by reading the manuals (sometimes inch-thick volumes), and providing guidance.

She notes: “There is a strict process and a lot of paperwork and detail required in obtaining funding. If the engineer has experience and knows which boxes to tick, then the timelines for approvals are reduced and your chances of success are increased.”

Nonetheless, as other engineers who work with First Nations say, the funding and approvals process is so layered it causes interminable delays. “All I know,” says Martin, “is that we have been involved with a couple of communities right from Day One where the capital planning study identified a need, but it took eight to 10 years for the project to be completed and for water to go out of the pipe.”

The delays occur because Aboriginal Affairs grants approval in phases. Whereas a municipality might have to do one application for government funding, First Nations have to apply for funding every step of the way. Martin outlines a typical scenario: “There’s a capital planning study, a water feasibility study, then a piloting program if the reviewing agency isn’t satisfied with the consultant’s recommendations. We present the results of the sampling, finalize the feasibility studies. Then we have design, and hopefully we get the construction schedule.”

One water treatment plant FNESL designed for the Mohawk’s of the Bay of Quinte, for example, is still “sitting there ready to go.” They began pilot studies four years ago in 2008 and the project has all its environmental approvals, but it can’t be built without the funding from Aboriginal Affairs. Meanwhile the community’s wells are shallow and dry, and “report after report” has shown that they’re not viable, says Gee.

Despite these frustrations, Martin and Gee are optimistic and believe that FNESL has good prospects on the business front. They have started to market their firm as proudly 100% native owned, and this spring they have lined up meetings with First Nations communities in British Columbia and Alberta. Martin hopes that they can forge alliances and believes they have an edge over the competition since “the work that we do is actually done on First Nations by Indian people for Indian people.”

Already Martin sees positive signs that resource development projects are helping First Nations to find the capital to fund their own infrastructure and developments, “so they can advance and do their own improvements,” he says.

“And that’s what we’re trying to do,” he continues. “We’re trying to get out there and let it be known that we are a native engineering firm and we can provide the service if given the opportunity.” cce


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