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New research shows that water systems on First Nations reserves operated by people lacking adequate training are more likely to experience drinking-water advisories that last longer , Matthew McClearn writes

John Owl, an infrastructure technician, takes a sample from a tanker delivering fresh water before it can be transferred to reservoirs on the Serpent River First Nation on Dec. 19, 2016.

Research from the University of Guelph's engineering school has discovered that water systems on First Nations reserves operated by people lacking adequate training are more likely to experience drinking-water advisories that last longer. This conclusion suggests the federal government may be neglecting its best option for ending advisories: supporting efforts to train operators of First Nations water systems.

The federal government has promised to eliminate all drinking-water advisories, which Health Canada recommends be issued when drinking water is deemed unsafe. They occur frequently on many reserves. Professor Ed McBean and his students gathered data on 1,526 advisories issued on 776 First Nations drinking-water systems between the beginning of 2004 and the end of 2014, and studied what troubled systems had in common.

"If your operator's not particularly well trained, or not trained to the level where they understand all the elements of their system, you're more likely to have trouble," Dr. McBean said.

Indigenous Services Canada (one of two successor departments to the recently dissolved Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) plans to end all long-term advisories (those in place longer than one year) for systems it finances by March, 2021. There are 91 such advisories; 40 have been eliminated since November, 2015, and 26 new ones have surfaced.

Previously under a ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory, the Serpent River First Nation has a new water treatment plant drawing water from Georgian Bay. With the plant operating at low capacity, a water tank has been bringing in fresh potable water from Sudbury to fill the town’s reservoir.

Most advisories instruct residents to boil water so it can be consumed safely, but other advisories prohibit consumption, or sometimes even use. The consequences to affected communities can be considerable. As they drag on, some remote communities are forced to fly in bottled water and then cope with the resulting waste problem. In others, weary citizens may begin to disregard the advisory, risking their health.

Information published on its website indicates the department strongly favours engineering solutions to meet its goal. ISC's proposed solution for ending 32 advisories is to build a new water-treatment plant. Some combination of plant repairs, upgrades and expansions are the next most-cited solutions. Although there's little doubt many reserves suffer from inadequate infrastructure, ISC's stated solutions appear to overlook the human element. Operator training is mentioned as part of the solution for only one community, God's Lake, in northeastern Manitoba, which is to receive "technical assistance and training."

Data provided by ISC show training-focused funding trended upward during the course of this decade, but is dwarfed by the approximately $2-billion committed in the 2016 budget over five years to improve water and wastewater delivery on reserves. The vast majority of that is earmarked to improve water and wastewater infrastructure; the remainder is reserved for improved testing and monitoring of water quality. Training appears to have become an afterthought.

But for Dr. McBean, the prescription arising from his research is obvious. "It follows that if [operators] had additional training, then they would be able to be more pro-active at getting rid of the boil-water advisory."

He's not the only one who has made that suggestion.

A 'startlingly low' rate of certification

In 2007, the standing Senate committee on aboriginal peoples demanded "a comprehensive, long-term training program." A 2011 report by engineering firm R.V. Anderson Associates Ltd. said additional training "could be a low-cost, short-term way to reduce the number of high-risk systems." Steve Hrudey, professor emeritus of the University of Alberta's medicine faculty who served on the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations more than a decade ago, made the same point in a written submission to the House of Commons standing committee on aboriginal peoples in 2013.

"To date, the emphasis has been on funding facilities without sufficiently increased emphasis on tackling the more challenging task of training and supporting competent, responsible operators for every facility," he wrote.

A monitor shows the status of various steps in the treatment of water at the treatment plant on the Serpent River First Nation.

There has been much improvement since the early 2000s, when less than 10 per cent of First Nations operators were certified. The laissez-faire environment for unqualified operators changed after the May, 2000, E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ont., that killed five people. A provincial inquiry found Walkerton's water-utility operators were experienced, but had no formal training. They didn't understand the health risks arising from contaminated drinking water, nor did they appreciate the gravity of their failure to monitor and treat the community's water properly.

"There was a rush to certification because of the tragedy," said Wes Morriseau, vice-chair of the Aboriginal Water Wastewater Association of Ontario (AWWAO), who became an operator around that time. "They didn't want anything like that to happen on a First Nation. The training at that time was so increased that I could have gone to training every week."

More than two-thirds of those operating ISC-funded systems were certified in 2016. But lately, the rate of progress has slowed, and the corollary is that nearly one-third of First Nations operators remain unqualified. "It's startlingly low, the number of certified operators," said Graham Gagnon, an engineering professor at Dalhousie University who has worked with First Nations chiefs across Atlantic Canada on water initiatives.

Natuashish, a remote reserve in Labrador, offers an example of how unqualified operators can complicate efforts to provide safe drinking water. This community of approximately 1,000 was built in the early 2000s to house the Mushuau Innu, whom the federal government relocated from nearby Davis Inlet. It's more than 1,000 kilometres northwest of St. John's, and far from any road network.

The new community included a water-treatment plant and distribution system. It has been subject to several advisories in recent years, the longest of which lasted 46 days. But documents obtained through the federal Access to Information Act reveal long-standing concerns by ISC employees about how that system was operated and maintained. In one February, 2012, e-mail, ISC employee Joe McKinnon wrote that "there were no qualified [personnel] assigned to maintain the water treatment plant." During the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years, ISC inspectors gave the operators the worst score possible for risk, and expressed serious concerns about record-keeping.

"It would appear that the operator/staff are comfortable operating the water system at this level of service risk as this has been their standard for many years," engineer Kriss Sarson wrote in an April, 2016, e-mail. "There is no 'easy' solution to this. They have had an engineer on-site for 1.5 years, and staff have [made] very little effort to respond to the engineer's efforts to build capacity."

Repeated attempts to reach the First Nation for comment were unsuccessful; voice mailboxes for several band officials were full, and other voice mails received no response.

Looking beyond certification to high education

Lysane Bolduc, director of ISC's water and wastewater program, said her department supports operator training in three ways. First, it provides annual funding to First Nations to operate and maintain their water systems; bands can allocate portions of that to training as they see fit. Secondly, ISC's Circuit Rider Training Program dispatches water- and wastewater-system experts through a "circuit" of reserves to provide hands-on training to operators and help them obtain certifications; 515 First Nations participate. And thirdly, ISC regional offices fund ad hoc training for operators upon request, which enables them to attend conferences and training sessions.

Other organizations, often funded by ISC, play a crucial role. For example, Thompson Rivers University offers a water- and wastewater-technology diploma in British Columbia. The first batch of First Nations operators graduated from that program in 2010; last year several of them established a new organization, the First Nations' Operator Waters Net of British Columbia & Yukon Territory, to help more colleagues get certified. Richard Inkster, a director, said his new group is already looking beyond certification to higher education in engineering and other disciplines. "Right now, we hire a lot of these professional people to come in and do the work," he said. "Now, we're trying to see about getting our own younger people to get university degrees, so we can have our own people to turn to."

Some critics argue ISC’s protocols which state that water-systems operators must meet the certification requirements is among the most significant obstacles to further progress for the Indigenous communities. The Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence in Dryden, Ont., offers dozens of courses to both Indigenous and municipal operators and trains more than 250 operators every year.

In Dryden, Ont., the Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence offers dozens of courses to both Indigenous and municipal operators; program manager Denis Nault said it trains 250 or more operators each year. The Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corp. and AWWAO offer training at annual conferences. "There's at least a dozen communities I could think of, off the top of my head, that have levelled up at least one level of certification in the last year," AWWAO chair Ian Fortin said.

'It starts to fall apart right from there'

What to do about uncertified operators presents a dilemma for both the federal government and First Nations. ISC's protocols state that water-systems operators must meet the certification requirements of the province in which they work. "Implicit in that is that the provinces are going to regulate the First Nation," Mr. Gagnon said. "They don't. So it starts to fall apart right from there."

Some critics argue this regulatory gap is among the most significant obstacles to further progress. "The person who has Grade 9 may not be the guy we want running our water plant," said Barry Strachan, public-works manager for the Keewaytinook Okimakanak tribal council in Northern Ontario, in an interview in 2016. "But without a regulation that stipulated, 'Well, that guy can't operate a water plant,' nothing will change." The lack of regulations means First Nations operators may not receive sufficient time or funding from their employers to get and maintain their certifications, Mr. Gagnon added.

Meanwhile, AWWAO and B.C.'s First Nations' Operator Waters Net both hope to promote programs intended to accommodate older operators who can't meet full certification requirements. A high-school diploma is a prerequisite for certification in most provinces, a barrier for many older operators. "Some of these guys have been in these water plants for 30 years, they can operate those plants blindfolded," Mr. Morriseau said. "Realistically, if they're not certified, their First Nation could fire them and throw them out the door. Which is going to make a bigger problem: You're not going to have an operator at all."

Bottled water is left by the door of a home on the Serpent River First Nation in December, 2016.

Even where qualified operators can be found, reserves frequently complain the money ISC provides to reserves for operations and maintenance is insufficient to retain them. Band councils typically pay significantly less than municipalities and the private sector, and cash-strapped reserves also require water-treatment operators to perform other jobs, such as running wastewater facilities and driving snowplows. "Sometimes we'll get a guy who's really good … he gets certified and down the road, a municipality has a job offer in the newspaper and they want to pay him $15 an hour more than what he's getting on the First Nation," Mr. Morriseau said. "All of a sudden he's packing and leaving." R.V. Anderson's 2011 report suggested ISC introduce monetary incentives "to increase operator retention and certification."

Despite the federal government's promised surge in funding to end drinking-water advisories, First Nations operators and the organizations hoping to train them say they continue to operate in a climate of austerity. AWWAO is funded by ISC and Health Canada, but treasurer Steve Laronde said the resources available for training have declined over time. He and Mr. Fortin now worry their organization's funding will be slashed next fiscal year. "We don't know where we're going to be even two years down the road," Mr. Fortin added. "I don't even know if the organization will exist."