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Lack of funding for piped water on First Nations in Sask. means some on reserves can’t drink from their taps

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WATCH: The Trudeau government has announced nearly $2 billion in funding for water on First Nations. But in some First Nations, money for new plants doesn't necessarily mean their water will be safe at home. Global News and students at First Nations University of Canada and the University of Regina spent the past year investigating how federal policies affect where the money goes.

The worst thing Perry Mcleod ever pulled out of a cistern was a car battery.

“The family didn’t know. They were using the water to wash their clothes, wash their dishes, wash their faces, brush their teeth,” he says.

Mcleod is the water treatment plant operator at Peepeekisis Cree Nation, located roughly 110 kilometres northeast of Regina.

Read more: First Nations workers in Saskatchewan sacrifice wages, vacation to run underfunded water systems

There are 150 homes on Peepeekisis and about 90 per cent are not hooked up to the water treatment plant. That means water from the plant is pumped into trucks and driven to most homes where it goes into large concrete storage tanks called cisterns.

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The community would eventually like to have all homes connected to the water treatment plant by a low-pressure waterline system, but such a move is estimated to cost millions of dollars. While Indigenous Services Canada would pay some of those costs, the band has not yet been able to afford its share, which a feasibility study pegs at $8.5 million. 

Peepeekisis Headman Colin Stonechild argues the federal government should make paying for piped water systems on First Nations a priority.

Perry Mcleod is the water operator at Peepeekisis Cree Nation. Ethan Butterfield / University of Regina

“If they would invest a little bit more money in the now on some of our issues, it would save them a lot of money in the long run,” he says.

“Most people that live in this civilised world just know water from turning on a tap … Our First Nations people don’t have that luxury.”

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15 PER CENT OF FIRST NATION HOMES RELY ON CISTERNS

ISC says it provides financial support for First Nations to deliver potable water and wastewater services on reserves in ways that are comparable to levels of service available in non-First Nation communities of similar size and circumstances. First Nations that want a higher level of service have to pay the added capital and operational costs themselves. That can be a challenge because operational budgets are already overburdened in most communities. 

ISC says that, for a community to qualify for funding a high-pressure piped water or sewage system, the width of lots in the community cannot average more than 30 metres. 

But this is not always an option on First Nations reserves which were designed based on treaties negotiated in the late 19th century as Canada segregated First Nations people from settler communities.

Read more: How colonial systems have left some First Nations without drinking water

Peepeekisis, for instance, has 150 homes in an area roughly six kilometres wide and 14 kilometres long. “We’re pretty scattered,” Mcleod says.

If communities like Peepeekisis that want low-pressure waterline systems, ISC will provide $10,000 per house connection plus half the cost associated with the house connections and half the costs associated with engineering and project management.

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A cistern outside a home at Hollow Water First Nation in Manitoba. File

On Peepeekisis, this means ISC would pay $1.6 million with the band covering $8.5 million, ISC says.

By ISC’s best estimate, 15 per cent of homes in First Nations communities across the country rely on water trucked into household cisterns. Provincially, that number is higher; a report commissioned by ISC in 2011 found that 3,037 homes on Saskatchewan First Nations relied on trucked water while 10,525 had piped water.

Though cisterns are often used in non-Indigenous rural communities, such as on farms, Mcleod argues that First Nations face unique challenges in keeping the water in these tanks fit for human use.

“The demographics are so much different between a farm and reserve house,” he says, pointing to the fact that many families — including numerous children — live on a reserve. 

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“(Kids) go outside, they do what they do. And they’re throwing stuff in there and you don’t know what’s going down there.”

CISTERN WATER NOT SAFE TO DRINK

Rebecca Zagozewski, executive director with the Saskatchewan First Nations Water Association, says cisterns can pose health risks to those who rely on them. She says the structures can have cracked lids, which allows all sorts of debris to get into them — including rats, mice, drowned puppies and garbage — and they’re often not cleaned properly.

On top of that, she says the Saskatchewan First Nations Water Association is concerned that there is no certification program for water truck drivers. The group wants to create such a program where drivers would have to be trained in how to keep the water safe and be held accountable if things go wrong. 

“Because right now there’s no accountability,” she says.

Rebecca Zagozewski is the executive director of the Saskatchewan First Nations Water Association. Devon Latchuk / Global News

Stonechild says some of the cisterns on Peepeekisis are cracked and he’s heard stories of some being infested with snakes and rodents. Most people do not drink the water that comes from a cistern, he said.

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A $9,000 renovation of the Peepeekisis water treatment plant, fully funded by ISC, wrapped up in December and the plant now has a bottle fill station where people can fill up jugs of drinking water at no charge at any hour of the day. Before, many people from the community would drive into Regina to buy bottled water to drink.

But Mcleod says some people in the community who don’t have vehicles aren’t able to make use of the fill station and instead must drink the cistern water.

 “I hate to say it. Some people in our community have not got a choice, they have to drink from their cisterns,” he says.

WATER HAS TO BE RATIONED

On Peepeekisis, cisterns are refilled once or twice per week and, while people try to ration water, the band office receives calls every day from people who have run out. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that overcrowded homes are a problem in the community. It’s not uncommon to have 10 people living in a home and relying on a single cistern.

Mcleod says he doesn’t often run out of water these days, but when he and his wife had four young kids at home their cistern would run dry constantly.

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“With the laundry and the dishes and the cleaning and the showers …  six people in the house, a…tank of water goes pretty darn fast. So we were always out of water,” he says.

Cisterns on Peepeekisis are typically cleaned every six months, but Stonechild says they were only cleaned once last year because the pandemic forced the First Nation to divert money normally earmarked for cistern cleaning to other areas, such as buying personal protective equipment for residents. 

“We just don’t ever have enough money to go around as it is and (it) puts us under a bigger burden within the pandemic,” he said.

Click to play video 'First Nations workers in Saskatchewan sacrifice wages, vacation to run underfunded water systems' First Nations workers in Saskatchewan sacrifice wages, vacation to run underfunded water systems
First Nations workers in Saskatchewan sacrifice wages, vacation to run underfunded water systems

FUNDING FOR PIPED SYSTEM HARD TO ACCESS

Stonechild says the recent renovations to Peepeekisis’ water treatment plant seem a bit of an “oxymoron” because most residents still aren’t able to drink the water that comes out of their taps.

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“Why build something when it’s only half effective?” he asks. “It would be a whole lot more effective if it came with a distribution system.”

On Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, about a quarter of the community’s 235 homes are connected to the water treatment plant by a low-pressure pipe system. The remainder of houses rely on cisterns or wells. 

The First Nation received more than $2 million in 2017 to upgrade its water treatment plant, but that did not include money to connect homes to the treatment plants by pipe.

In 2014, the band estimated it would cost roughly $5 million to pipe water to all the homes. Despite cost sharing options with ISC, the band could not afford the price tag and the cost is expected to be higher today.

Read more: Trudeau gov. grilled over construction firms hired for First Nations infrastructure projects

“You get funded to support your water treatment plant. You get funded for employees, you get it funded for what ISC will identify as good chemicals, but you don’t really get funded for homes and the cisterns and changing the pipes,” says Chief Cadmus Delorme.

His own home relies on a cistern and he says he is always cautious about how much water he uses to prevent running out.

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Like Stonechild, he says the federal government has a responsibility to step in and pick up the tab.

“We’re not a tax-based First Nation, like how RMs, cities, municipalities are. When we agreed to Treaty, there was a fiduciary obligation,” he says.

In an emailed statement, ISC spokesperson Leslie Michelson said providing safe drinking water on reserves is a shared responsibility among First Nations communities and the Government of Canada. 

PIPED WATER CAN PROVIDE HEALTH BENEFITS

Tim Vogel, a sessional lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan, studied drinking water treatment and distribution on Saskatchewan First Nations for his PhD. He says that while there will be a significant upfront cost to establishing piped water distribution systems, there may be economic payoffs down the road because the health of the community may improve.

He says people drinking water from contaminated cisterns can suffer gastrointestinal illnesses and skin issues. This can result in people needing to access health care and taking time off work. 

On Peepeekisis, Mcleod says he’s heard stories of people suffering from sores after using cistern water to bathe.

Read more: Building trust in its tap water will be Neskantaga’s next big challenge

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An analysis by a consortium led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism has found that Indigenous communities where some residents rely on cisterns have experienced twice the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19. Using data, access to information requests and Esri ArcGIS technology, the team found that the risk of an outbreak in these communities remained elevated across analyses that took into account the number of people living on reserve and housing density, though the dataset was not large enough to rule out those two factors entirely. 

Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto, says people reliant on cisterns could be at higher risk of contracting the virus because of the need for them to be rationing water.

“You’re not washing your hands as much. If you are exposed potentially to the virus you’re not going to go and take a shower, change your clothes, etc. to reduce your risk,” she said.

Click to play video 'First Nations communities suffer through tainted water crisis despite government promises' First Nations communities suffer through tainted water crisis despite government promises
First Nations communities suffer through tainted water crisis despite government promises

AN ACT OF RECONCILIATION

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For Stonechild, a federal commitment to getting piped water to all Indigenous homes across the country, including in his community, would represent an act of reconciliation.

“If they want to have a good nation and true reconciliation, they should start being able to really, really show us reconciliation,” he says.

“If there was problems with anybody’s water in Peterborough or Calgary, the government would fix it. But we’ve been lobbying for years and years for the same issue over and over, banging on the door … We’re getting a new water treatment plant, but it’s still not fixing the problem.”

— This reporting was done in partnership with a consortium led by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism that includes Global News, APTN News, First Nations University of Canada Indigenous Communication Arts (INCA) and the University of Regina School of Journalism

Files from Priscilla Wolf, APTN News

Investigative team:

Institute for Investigative Journalism reporting fellowship:

Jaida Beaudin-Herney, First Nations University of Canada

First Nations University of Canada

Taryn Acoose, Jaida Beaudin-Herney, Brittany Boschman, Charmaine Ermine, Danna Henderson, Krystal Lewis, Alicia Morrow, Darla Ponace, Mercedes Redman, Shayla Sayer-Brabant, Doris Wesaquate. Instructor: Patricia W. Elliott

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University of Regina

Suliman Adam, Kerry Benjoe, Adam Bent, Ethan Butterfield, Jacob Carr, Dylan Earis, Morgan Esperance, Mick Favel, Libby Giesbrecht, Sayda Momtaha Habib, Theresa Kliem, Michelle Lerat, Donovan Maess, Kaitlynn Nordal, Kehinde Olalafe, Heather O’Watch, Julia Peterson, Tuuli Rantasalo, Paige Reimer, Kaitlyn Schropp, Dan Sherven, Penny Smoke, Dawson Thompson, Jasper Watrich. Instructors: Patricia W. Elliott, Trevor Grant, Layton Burton

See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits and more information about the consortium here

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

 For tips on this story, please contact the reporters at: iij.tips(at)protonmail.com