Skip to main content

The federal Liberal government is on track with its pledge to end long-term boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves, but the overall reliability of the underlying water systems is little improved since the party came to power, according to a Globe and Mail analysis.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assumed office, there were 105 such advisories. He promised to end all of them within five years; his government committed $1.8-billion toward upgrading water and wastewater systems.

Data published on Indigenous Services Canada’s website show that 78 advisories have been rescinded since November, 2015. Most were resolved through repairing or replacing failed water-treatment plants, wells, distribution systems or other infrastructure. A handful were eliminated through improved water-quality monitoring and sampling, and a few more by connecting communities to systems in nearby municipalities. Meanwhile, more than 30 new advisories have stretched on for longer than one year; over all, 62 long-term advisories remain outstanding today.

But other federal data suggest the condition of First Nations water systems hasn’t changed much. Indigenous Services Canada uses a database called the Integrated Capital Management System (ICMS) to assess the risk that water systems present to the people they serve. Annual inspections assess each system’s design, how well it’s being operated and maintained, record keeping, the operators' training and the quality of source water; systems are then scored between 1 (presenting very low risk of producing unsafe water) and 10 (extreme risk).

An analysis of 11 years of ICMS data by The Globe, covering some 14,000 individual inspections, shows the national average risk score among the nearly 800 systems tracked on the ICMS barely budged since 2015.

This apparent lack of progress can be partly explained by the fact that some recently fixed water systems have yet to be re-inspected. That means the ICMS data doesn’t fully reflect recent improvements. But the risk scores also point to something else: Ending advisories means something quite different than providing consistently safe, high-quality drinking water.

Indigenous Services Canada said the remaining long-term advisories will be terminated by March, 2021, as promised. “We’re completely on track,” said Chad Westmacott, senior director of Indigenous Services Canada’s Strategic Water Team.

The department reported that 30 short-term advisories were terminated last year that lasted between two and 12 months. “It’s really a good indication of progress," Mr. Westmacott said, "working with our First Nations partners to address the advisories before they are becoming long term.”

Advisories are issued to warn people not to consume water that is unsafe, or at high risk of becoming so. Boil-water advisories, the most common variety, are issued when water can be made safe by being brought to a rolling boil for one minute. Do Not Consume advisories are issued in situations where boiling won’t remedy the hazard.

In non-Indigenous communities advisories are used as precautionary measures for temporary issues such as water-line breaks and equipment failures. Many reserves, in contrast, have experienced advisories that drag on for years without remedy. (The longest-running advisory still outstanding, at Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario, dates from 1995.)

The problem with First Nations water systems runs deeper than just advisories, however.

Consider the Sahhaltkum No. 4 reserve adjacent to Chase, B.C. – home to about 300 people. It’s not subject to an advisory, and for years has been ranked as a low-risk system. Yet, Trevor Andrew, the long-serving operator of the community’s water-treatment plant, said he’s received more than 300 complaints about water quality since three new wells entered service in 2014.

Part of the problem is that the community’s water is often brown because it contained elevated levels of manganese. According to the First Nations Health Authority (which tests drinking water, inspects water systems and can recommend advisories on reserves in British Columbia), that’s an aesthetic issue, and doesn’t present a health risk. Sahhaltkum’s treatment system produces water that “has been satisfactory,” it said in a statement.

This winter, Health Canada intends to publish updated federal guidelines for manganese in drinking water. “Manganese has long been considered to only be an aesthetic concern in drinking water, causing discoloured water and/or staining of laundry or fixtures," it said. “However, new scientific studies have shown health effects related to exposure to high levels of manganese in drinking water.” (Implementation of these guidelines is up to provincial, territorial and federal authorities.)

Mr. Andrew predicted that many on-reserve water systems − including Sahhaltkum’s − will be slapped with advisories immediately afterward. The First Nations Health Authority later confirmed that Sahhaltkum’s manganese levels are above the new guidelines.

Mr. Andrew has another concern. The new wells were drilled less than 15 metres from a sewer line, which in his view presents an unacceptable contamination risk. He provided The Globe a 2014 letter from the First Nations Health Authority, which recommended additional treatment measures be taken to mitigate that risk prior to commissioning the wells. Mr. Andrew said that never happened.

Open this photo in gallery:

Water produced by the water system in November at the Sahhaltkum reserve in B.C. Treatment operator Trever Andrew says the brown color is due to high levels of manganese.

The health authority said it is “aware of the issue of the sewer-line proximity and has made recommendations to the community leadership, including treatment and other preventative solutions.” An engineering company is now doing an assessment; meanwhile, additional routine sampling is taking place. Indigenous Services Canada said the band selected the locations of the wells. The line would only pose a contamination risk if it ruptured, the department added, and the last inspection showed it was in good condition.

But Mr. Andrew said no additional sampling is taking place. “We have no line of defence to protect the aquifers,” he said. “Our first indicator that the pressurized sewer line broke or was leaking into the aquifers is the people would be getting sick.”

Mr. Andrew’s employer, the Adams Lake Indian Band, is supposed to be part of the government’s success story. One of its smaller systems, the Doug Arnouse Community Water System, which serves nine houses, had been on an advisory since 2001 because the water it provided wasn’t treated. In September, that was resolved through improvements. However, Mr. Andrew said that system’s greater problem is that its wells have been running low.

“All these solutions are just temporary relief,” he said.

Hans Peterson, an advocate on First Nations water issues who died in October, told The Globe last year that advisories were being lifted in Saskatchewan through temporary measures. “We have communities where very high chlorine levels have been used to remove boil-water advisories,” he said. “And we have communities that are told they are getting a new [treatment] process. But the moment, as part of that process, a [reverse osmosis unit] is put in, the boil-water advisory can be lifted and nothing else is done.”

Mr. Westmacott vowed that communities that have ended advisories through interim solutions will not be abandoned. “It’s definitely not our goal to reach the 2021 target, and then sit back and everything falls apart after that,” he said.

Another common complaint from First Nations was that the nations themselves, and not the federal government, are driving the elimination of advisories. Mr. Andrew said he began lobbying the federal government in 2007 for funding to upgrade the Arnouse system, but the department provided little assistance. “The current [Indigenous Services Canada] process to complete a project costs a lot of money in planning and time,” he said. “There are many projects that never move past the planning phase, with nothing ever being resolved.”

Big Island Lake Cree Nation, in Saskatchewan, is another success story. It had been on a boil-water advisory for nearly five years. Carvey Sandfly, the community’s economic development director and a former operator of its water-treatment plant, said that while the water was technically safe, inconsistent bacteriological monitoring led to an advisory being imposed. As it dragged on, many community members relied on bottled water. So the band council revamped its approach to monitoring, and over the course of a year satisfied Health Canada. That advisory was rescinded in August.

“Now that it’s lifted, you see everyone using the tap water again,” he said. “They trust it more.”

Next up is a major refurbishment of the treatment plant, scheduled to begin in May. “Everything is being taken care of now,” he said. “It’s very good news.”

Mr. Sandfly acknowledged that Indigenous Services Canada worked more speedily to provide assistance than in the past. But he stopped short of attributing the advisory’s elimination to the department. “Whatever they were doing, I’m not sure if I can heavily credit them for this,” he said. “It was the fact that we made the push to get this under way.”

Much remains to be accomplished if the Prime Minister’s promise is to be fulfilled. More than 30 First Nations are still in initial assessments or feasibility studies to determine viable long-term solutions. Mr. Westmacott said that some of those communities are remote and inaccessible, which complicates matters: It can be difficult to transport equipment and personnel into communities accessible only via plane or winter roads.

Mr. Westmacott said the government’s decision to commit funding for five years contributed to the recent progress in ending advisories. "The maintained focus on addressing drinking-water issues has really brought a progress forward that maybe historically hasn’t been there,” he said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe