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What is the state of water on Canada's reserves?

Posted on September 26, 2017

By Catherine Chea

Canada may be considered one of the best places to live, yet many of its citizens are living in Third World conditions.over the last two decades. More than 300 people in northern Ontario reserves alone, including the Neskantaga First Nation and Serpent River First Nation, have been living under a boil-water advisory since 1995.

Has the situation improved since 1995?

The answer is yes and no. The drinking water crisis in Canada’s First Nations communities continues to be an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed. However, places that have successfully implemented modern water treatment facilities have seen tremendous improvements. In contrast, there are also numerous examples of failed water-treatment plants, which are costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The “untreatable” water 

Financing water treatment facilities is only half the battle. For decades, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, a federal government department, deemed unsafe groundwater at the reserves as “untreatable.” Traditional treatment plants using methods such as coagulation and manganese greensand are unable to remove dissolved contaminants in the water, and many fail within the first five years due to technical limitations. In many cases, these methods are unsustainable and create even more problems.

Other challenges

Poor workmanship and lack of operating training or experience are also factors that are responsible for failed implementations. A 2011 report by the Auditor General noted that most reserves have fewer than 500 residents and “are hampered by the lack of expertise” to deliver key programs.

Additionally, many water treatment systems are not catered to sustaining small native reserves. The water treatment systems standards set by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has led to plants that are operationally complex and thus better suited for larger municipalities rather than smaller communities.

It would seem the situation is bleak for many Canadian First Nations living under do not consume or boil water advisories. While many water treatment facilities fail, some are making headway—primarily in Western Canada.

Removing boil water advisories across the nation—one treatment facility at a time

A number of First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan have been particularly successful in treating their contaminated groundwater, thanks to local technological innovation.

In 2002, the Yellow Quill First Nation was the first adopter of the Integrated Biological and Reverse Osmosis Membrane (IBROM) treatment process, a process that is recognized by the United Nations. This process can treat even the poorest-quality raw water and produce tap water of 10 to 100 times better quality than conventional treatments.

The IBROM treatment removes a host of compounds by pushing the water through a series of biofilters prior to entering a reverse osmosis system. Its biggest advantage is the ability to treat contaminants without backwashing and chemical applications. Other benefits of the latest IBROM treatment system is that it’s sustainable, affordable, and has been designed and built for small remote communities.

Working with Sapphire Water, a water treatment company, the full scale-IBROM implementation finally lifted the nine-year boil-advisory at Yellow Quill Since then, at least 15 other First Nations communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta have followed suit. As well, more IBROM treatment systems are scheduled for construction this year, replacing manganese greensand in First Nations communities using groundwater.

Change is underway  

It looks like IBROM is the future of water treatment systems. As Bill Marion, James Smith Cree Nation director of public works says, “I think it’s very worthy to advocate and promote this type of technology that’s available in this plant, not just within Saskatchewan, but nationally, because… this is the type of treatment technology that’s going to be there in the future.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to end boil-water advisories on reserves by 2021, and currently the federal government is pouring billions into treatment systems—hopefully in the right places.

Today, many Indigenous in Canada are still boiling unsafe water, and have been doing so for decades. But with the latest treatment technology and sufficient resources, there should be no excuse to continue boil water orders on First Nation reserves for much longer.

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