On-reserve water quality barriers in the Prince Albert area

Tyler
Tyler Clarke
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Chiefs and council in Saskatchewan are struggling to provide their communities with clean drinking water, and with new regulations in place the pressure’s on.

 

University of Saskatchewan project manager Rebecca Zagozewski and associate professor Lalita Bharadwaj, from left, are seen in the Saskatchewan Forest Centre after Tuesday’s Prince Albert Model Forest board meeting.

The federal Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, also known as Bill S-8, passed in June, with 165 MPs voting in its favour, including the vote of Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback, and 115 MPs voting against it.

The act, in part, transfers the legal liabilities of water quality onto chiefs and their council, summarized Lalita Bharadwaj, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Now they’re legally responsible for any repercussion of not meeting those regulations,” she said, adding chiefs and council they face significant financial barriers in doing so.

Joined by project manager Rebecca Zagozewski, Bharadwaj provided the Prince Albert Model Forest with an update on their ongoing project, titled “Water Regulations: Impacts on First Nations Health Equity and Promotion,” which has been underway since 2009.

The project has studied four First Nations communities around Prince Albert, Bharadwaj summarized after the duo’s presentation.

Reluctant to share any specifics before they’ve gathered samples from a larger selection of communities, she said that water quality results and community feedback has been varied, though many communities have antiquated water utility infrastructure.

The main barrier to providing residents with clean drinking water is the limited funding chiefs and council are given to provide the service.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada funds water treatment and distribution efforts at a level of 80 per cent

“Water is a right,” Zagozewski said. “Most places -- except for one community -- they will not charge their people for water.

“I don’t think the government gets it through their heads that that 20 per cent is not going to come from the community.”

They tender out the bids to make these water treatment plants to the lowest bidder, so the lowest bidder is going to find whatever parts they can -- out of date, whatever -- so these water treatment plants get put up, and then six months later they need a part and can’t get them (because it’s) out of date. Rebecca Zagozewski

With limited funding has come cut corners, Zagozewski said.

“They tender out the bids to make these water treatment plants to the lowest bidder, so the lowest bidder is going to find whatever parts they can -- out of date, whatever -- so these water treatment plants get put up, and then six months later they need a part and can’t get them (because it’s) out of date,” Zagozewski said, relaying a quote from her batch of on-reserve interviews.

In addition to taking water samples from the source and from within homes, one of Zagozewski’s key roles has been interviewing people on-reserve.

Relaying the contents of an interview with one water treatment plant officer, Zagozewski said that one man recognized that “they aren’t producing the best water they could.”

“In some areas I’ve heard of the operator saying ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and they just walk away from it,’” Zagozewski relayed.

During Tuesday’s meeting with the Prince Albert Model Forest, Bharadwaj and Zagozewski networked some new contacts in order to expand their research to other First Nations communities in the province.

They expect their findings to add some clout to the requests that chiefs and council make when it comes to added federal funding for water utility infrastructure.

“The results are owned by the communities -- they own and posses the data,” Bharadwaj said.

“I really am passionate about getting this issue on the table more often, and just giving voices to the communities around some of the challenges.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, First Nations

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