A few years ago, during supper at a conference, research scientist Hans Gosta Peterson found himself seated beside a member of Saskatchewan’s legislative assembly and steered the conversation to his favourite subject.
That lasted about five minutes before the MLA interjected. “‘How boring are we?’ she said. ‘We sit and talk about water. And I just overheard what they talk about at the table next to us, and they talk about sex. It sounds more interesting.’”
Another man might have found the trivialization of his life’s work disheartening, but Mr. Peterson accepted it with equanimity. “I thought, ‘she’s right,’” Mr. Peterson laughed in an interview with The Globe last year. Most Canadians become apoplectic on the rare occasions when foul-smelling or awful-tasting water issues forth from their tap, he said. And the unfortunate few? “Many communities, they’ve had really poor water for so long, they think it’s part of life.”
A scientist, inventor, researcher, educator and advocate, Mr. Peterson spent the past two decades helping First Nations communities across the Prairies get safe drinking water. He never stopped talking about it, even to unreceptive ears.
Born in the small town of Karlshamn, Sweden, on Aug. 29, 1950, Mr. Peterson studied in his native country and the United Kingdom, then migrated to Canada to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg. He later moved to Saskatoon and, in 1983, he married Susan Blacklin, with whom he had four children: Adam, Else, Mark and Sven.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Peterson co-founded the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, a charity intended to help small communities in developing countries, and worked in China, Mongolia and Thailand. But in 1999, the world at his doorstep beckoned: A health official with the Saskatoon Tribal Council called Mr. Peterson to discuss conditions at Yellow Quill First Nation, 250 kilometres east of Saskatoon. What she described was reminiscent of what he had witnessed in Third World countries. Mr. Peterson, who at the time knew little about First Nations issues, was skeptical until he joined her on a tour of the community. “I went out with her and couldn’t believe what I saw,” he later recalled.
Yellow Quill’s well water was so filthy that the Indigenous Affairs department considered it untreatable; the community’s water system had been slapped with a boil-water advisory in 1995. “People would get sores,” recalled Roberta Neapetung, a long-time water treatment operator in the community. “They’d have to go to town to get baths. … It wasn’t safe for human consumption at all.”
Hired by the federal government in 2002, Mr. Peterson took two trailers to the reserve. He parked one 10 metres from its well; inside, he began experimenting with as many as 10 different treatment techniques. The other trailer became his office and living quarters. He remained there for 22 months, away from his family and working his habitual schedule: up to 18 hours a day, and often seven days a week.
Reverse osmosis seemed an ideal solution for Yellow Quill but for one thing: Large organic molecules and other contaminants in its water rapidly clogged the filters. So Mr. Peterson introduced a bacterial pretreatment that broke down those molecules such that the membranes could process them. The Integrated Biological and Reverse Osmosis Membrane treatment process – or IBROM for short – was born.
Yellow Quill’s boil-water advisory, then in its ninth year, ended in 2004, after a new IBROM treatment plant entered service. In gratitude, the First Nation presented Mr. Peterson with a forged treaty card – made partly using an official document – designating him an “honorary band member.” The federal government contacted him weeks later, demanding he surrender the document. “He cherished it,” Ms. Neapetung recalled.
Mr. Peterson’s triumph at Yellow Quill attracted attention from other First Nations communities. By the time David Schindler (a University of Alberta biological sciences professor whose career intersected several times with Mr. Peterson’s) arrived at Saddle Lake First Nation around 2005 to diagnose what had polluted the community’s lake, Mr. Peterson’s trailer was already there. He was adapting the IBROM process – which, up to that point, had only been used with groundwater – to somehow purify the fetid lake water. Mr. Schindler recalled band members’ pickup trucks queuing up outside Mr. Peterson’s test plant. “Rather than drink their own water supply, they’d come with their bottles and get Hans’s water because it was so much better.”
There’s a long history of engineering contractors building ineffective treatment systems on First Nations lands and promptly departing – a practice that became known as “design, build and bugger off.” Mr. Peterson, in contrast, often returned to IBROM plants following their installation, helping operators troubleshoot and fine-tune his systems. He frequently provided over-the-phone support as well. “He would just about do anything, for pretty much anybody who asked,” said Dan Rodrigue, president of Sapphire Water, a small company that builds IBROMs in Western Canada.
Mr. Peterson had a knack for identifying promising First Nations operators, but demanded high standards. “He was pretty ruthless, in that if someone wasn’t doing the job, he’d fire them and get somebody else,” Mr. Schindler said. “In a couple of cases, he fired the brothers or other close relatives of some of the band chiefs, without consulting them.” Mr. Peterson got away with such actions because he had earned considerable respect in First Nations communities, Mr. Schindler added.
His habit of haranguing federal officials over their poor record of providing drinking water to First Nations was perhaps less well received. “If he had been a little less direct and stroked some well-preened feathers [of government officials], he could have a lot more of those plants going,” Mr. Schindler observed. Some First Nations political organizations also regarded him with caution: One senior official at the Assembly of First Nations “wouldn’t dare” talk to him, Mr. Peterson told The Globe in September. “Remember, I am the 68-year-old rebel,” he added.
But whatever the IBROM lacked in federal support, it made up for by winning hearts in First Nations communities. Nearly all of the 20 IBROM plants built to date have been on Prairie reserves, whose band councils lobbied hard to get them. Combined, Mr. Peterson reckoned, those plants now produce more than seven million litres of drinking water daily. “Thanks to him, over 100,000 Saskatchewan residents have safe drinking water now,” said Nicole Hancock, executive director of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation.
In 2009, Mr. Peterson ventured briefly into retirement, and around the same time he suffered a stroke that temporarily robbed him of much of his intricate knowledge about the IBROM process. He plunged into deep depression. Never enamoured with city life, he moved to Stanley Mission, a remote, predominantly Indigenous community in northern Saskatchewan. He remarried in 2011, to Sha McKellop, and began spending time in Jamaica, his wife’s birthplace. As his health and memory returned, so did his drive to see more First Nations achieve safe drinking water.
Last year, Mr. Peterson told The Globe his next stay in Jamaica might last six months. “My kids are putting a gun to my head and saying, ‘Dad, you’ve gotta relax. You can’t just talk about water all the time.’ And so then I went to Jamaica and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do other stuff.’”
Without pausing, he continued. “But then we had all kinds of issues in Saskatchewan.” Again, he pushed his planned retirement date forward, to the age of 70.
Mr. Peterson spent the past year drafting new water-quality regulations for First Nations in Saskatchewan, overseen by a committee of First Nations people and scientists. Mr. Peterson hoped these new standards would compel the Indigenous Affairs department to install better treatment plants on First Nations reserves. Its regional office was recently notified of the new regulations, he said. “And they are pissed off.”
A week before his death, Mr. Peterson made what was probably his final IBROM sales pitch, in an e-mail to a senior bureaucrat. “I just want to alert you to your minister’s seeming struggle to select good First Nations water stories,” he wrote. If the department built more IBROMs, he implied, the federal government would have more to crow about. “You can call any of the First Nations [with] IBROM plants and ask chiefs, councillors, band members, really anybody and they will tell you they are thrilled with their IBROM plant.”
Mr. Peterson died suddenly from a heart attack on Oct. 24 in Saskatoon. He leaves his wife, Sha (McKellop) Peterson; children Adam, Elsa, Mark and Sven; and siblings, Claes and Camilla.
Recalling his disregard for social conventions in a eulogy, Sven Peterson described his father as “the most unreasonable, most unique person I have ever met.”