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Historic framework signed for First Nations-led Atlantic water authority

Ottawa signs framework with Atlantic First Nations Water Authority
WATCH: The federal government has agreed to transfer some of its power over water management on reserves to a new Atlantic First Nations Water Authority. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more.

Indigenous leaders in Atlantic Canada are guaranteeing clean drinking water for their communities through a historic new framework that will allow them to manage their own water services.

On Tuesday, the federal government signed an agreement that will transfer responsibility for water and wastewater services from Indigenous Services Canada to the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA).

The First Nations-led water authority will act as a single utility provider for 15 Indigenous communities in the region, serving more than 4,500 households. This is the first framework of its kind in Canada.

READ MORE: Why some First Nations still don’t have clean drinking water — despite Trudeau’s promise

“By doing this stuff, we’re working with other communities also. We’re working with all the experts in the different communities. That’s the biggest thing, is to have the people involved,” said Chief Wilbert Marshall of the Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton.

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“A lot of the time, the government steps in and they give you no choice… but this is going to be based on our guys, our communities, the experts in the field, and the best money water can buy for the future of all communities.”

The Potlotek First Nation has for decades dealt with water quality issues including elevated levels of manganese and iron. Marshall, who also serves as chair of the AFNWA, said the authority will control water system designs and upgrades, its capital budget and procurement practices.

Other participating communities include the Pictou Landing, Sipekne’katik and Millbrook First Nations in Nova Scotia, the Lennox Island First Nation in P.E.I. and the Eel River Bar and Oromocto First Nations in New Brunswick.

Why some First Nations reserves don’t have clean drinking water
Why some First Nations reserves don’t have clean drinking water

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The AFNWA was formally established in 2018 and more than a decade of planning and collaboration between Atlantic Indigenous chiefs, government and stakeholder groups, including the Atlantic Policy Congress.

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It will operate using a “hub and spoke” model that allows its staff to move between participant communities, ensuring a smooth and integrated service delivery for all.

The authority hopes to have its Indigenous-led management team assembled by April next year, with the centralized utility fully operational by 2022. Roughly $2.5 million in federal funding will kick-start its operations.

READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high levels of lead across the country

As it stands, there are no long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserves in Atlantic Canada, but the existing infrastructure in some communities may be in need of upgrade, repair or replacement.

All of the participating First Nations’ existing water management assets will be transferred to the AFNWA, which takes a look at what needs improvement and develop a long-term business plan.

“We expect that over time, we will be achieving water quality that meets the highest standard in the land,” said Carl Yates, AFNWA interim CEO.

“We anticipate this could be a journey of five to 10 years to get everything into good shape, in particular, we’re going to see more investment in wastewater for sure.”

Tainted water: how to know if your child is protected
Tainted water: how to know if your child is protected

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The federal government’s signing of the AFNWA framework comes after what Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recognized as a “paternalistic” and “colonialist” way of managing water in Indigenous communities.

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“The number of situations that Indigenous communities find themselves in today is the direct result of overt racism in some circumstances,” he said during a video call announcing the framework on Tuesday.

As of Feb. 15 this year, 61 long-term drinking water advisories remain in place in Indigenous communities nationwide and 88 such advisories have been lifted. The federal government has committed to eliminating all of them by March 2021.

While 15 Indigenous communities have signed on to participate in the AFNWA, the authority confirmed seven more are on standby to join, and its model can be scaled to include every Indigenous community in Atlantic Canada.