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Clean water, broken promises” is a collaborative investigation into obstacles First Nations are facing during the Trudeau government’s push to ensure communities can deliver clean drinking water to residents. This is the second of two stories about why climate change is making the clean-water promise even harder to keep. You can read yesterday's instalment here. To read the full series, click here.

In 2014, Mitaanjigamiing First Nation, on the edge of Rainy Lake in northwestern Ontario, declared a state of emergency when high water levels led to flooding that threatened some of its infrastructure, including the only access road in and out of the community. Sandbagging helped to limit the damage.

“(The water treatment plant) was pretty close to being inundated, but they were able to stop that from happening. Some water did get in there, but it didn’t have a negative impact,” said Ed Morrison, Mitaanjigamiing’s band manager.

The First Nation now worries it won’t be so lucky during the next major flood and both the community’s water plant and powwow grounds will be affected.

If the treatment plant were to be flooded, treated drinking water could be contaminated, and the community would have to issue a boil water advisory. Morrison said decontaminating the plant and distribution system would cost up to $90,000. “That financial burden, the First Nation — us being a small community — can’t afford,” he said.

In 2019, Mitaanjigamiing received $51,354 from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) to do a flood vulnerability study. Study in hand, the community will soon prepare a project proposal for funding to address and mitigate the flood risks that were identified.

Morrison said the federal government approves and funds infrastructure projects on reserves, “but when it comes to mitigating (risks) and protecting these assets in the interest of public health and safety, suddenly they don’t want to assist with the financial costs.”

With climate change leading to more variable and extreme weather, scientists expect Canada will see increased drought and wildfire risks in the future, as well as more rain-generated flooding and coastal erosion. Experts and First Nations leaders say the federal government isn’t spending enough on climate change adaptation measures in First Nations communities.

“We’ve seen floods and droughts in a number of different places across the country,” said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who is Lubicon Cree and a director at Indigenous Climate Action. “There’s going to be a water crisis ... for all of Canada. Of course, Indigenous people will be last in line to receive any sort of funding.”

First Nations communities say more needs to be done to help protect their water infrastructure from floods, drought and other climate hazards. #BrokenPromises #FIRSTWATER #FirstNations

Insufficient funding

During the 2015 federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised a Liberal-led government would end all long-term boil water advisories in First Nations communities — those lasting longer than a year — by March 2021. Across Canada, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) pointed out it has spent more than $1.74 billion on on-reserve water and wastewater projects since 2015.

On Wednesday, a consortium of universities, colleges and media outlets, including Canada’s National Observer, Le Devoir, Carleton University and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, revealed ISC design guidelines for water and wastewater systems do not require that engineers anticipate how climate change will heighten flood, drought, wildfire and other climate-related risks and incorporate ways of mitigating those risks into project designs.

As part of a year-long investigation, journalism students across Canada conducted 122 standardized interviews with water operators and public works directors in First Nations communities in early 2020. Nearly a quarter of those interviewees said they were concerned climate change is already affecting their drinking water.

In an emailed response to the consortium’s questions, ISC says it spent $58.1 million from 2015 to 2019 on 57 “structural mitigation projects” meant to make on-reserve infrastructure of all types more resilient to climate change and its impacts.

The federal department said those projects, which included the construction of dikes and upgrading of drainage channels, have benefited 65 First Nations communities, of which there are more than 630 across the country.

“The reality is that ($58.1 million) comes to about $90,000 per community, so if the government is serious about fixing problems that we have with our infrastructure and are putting $90,000 towards that, that effort is not an honest effort,” said Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, who is also the Lake Huron regional chief of Anishinabek Nation, an organization that acts as a political advocate for 39 member First Nations across Ontario.

“I have a huge concern when we report aggregate numbers because $58 million seems like a ton of money to the average person, right? ... But $58 million over 57 projects is a million a pop for structural mitigation — pretty dismal,” said Kerry Black, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary whose research has focused on sustainable infrastructure in northern and remote communities.

In addition to ISC’s funding of these mitigation projects, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) has provided $31 million to First Nations since 2016 for flood vulnerability studies and climate risk assessments — reports that help communities understand how their infrastructure could be affected by climate change. The department said its “First Nations Adapt” program would disburse another $8 million for such reports by the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Black said climate risk assessments and flood vulnerability studies are only useful if upgrades are done to make infrastructure more resilient. “The last thing communities want is for you to come in and tell them where all the problems are and have absolutely zero plan in place to tackle it going forward,” she said. “Is there a value in identifying vulnerabilities when you don’t have access to resources to deal with it?”

Since March 2019, ISC says it has provided Mitaanjigamiing with $2.3 million to upgrade its aging water treatment plant. The First Nation has also secured funding from other sources for the project, the cost of which is expected to be $3.3 million.

Morrison said the project includes upgrades, like the installation of some backflow preventers, to help mitigate flood risks. However, the project does not include the construction of a dike “to hold back water and just to protect the asset itself,” he said.

He said the community also has funding to place boulders along the lakeshore to prevent shoreline erosion near the access road and powwow grounds. A better solution would have been to raise the level of the access road so it’s above the flood line, a costlier endeavour, he added. “Right now, the grade of the road is below the flooding limit.”

Morrison said Mitaanjigamiing wanted to get the flood vulnerability study done to demonstrate to the provincial and federal governments the flood risk at the water treatment plant “is a liability and it needs to be addressed.”

“Far too often, governments will say (to First Nations), ‘Well, how come you didn’t say anything?’” he said. “We want to show them that these are the costs, (they) approved the projects to begin with, (they) provided the permitting. We’re telling (them) that this could be the end result if there’s a reoccurrence (of flooding), and here’s a way to mitigate it.”

The Mitaanjigamiing First Nation worries the next major flood will threaten the community’s water plant and powwow grounds. Photo by Ed Morrison

Water supplies affected by drought, blue-green algae

Mitaanjigamiing is not the only First Nation whose water supply is at risk from climate-related hazards. In Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, 200 kilometres east of Toronto, drought and blue-green algae have left some households without a reliable supply of safe drinking water in recent years, said Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte.

The First Nation — one of the largest in Ontario with almost 10,200 members, of whom more than 2,100 live on reserve lands — built a new water treatment plant in 2014. That plant supplies 210 homes with piped water, while another 326 homes receive piped water from the nearby town of Deseronto. The rest of the community’s approximately 1,200 homes aren’t yet connected to either piped distribution system.

Right now, trucks deliver water from the Tyendinaga treatment plant to 195 homes with storage tanks, Chief Maracle said. The remainder of the unserviced lots rely on individual wells or small communal systems that don’t comply with Ontario’s water quality regulations, like a Second World War-era pumping station that was originally intended only for fire protection.

The community’s water treatment plant was designed to safely remove blue-green algae, a recurring summertime problem in the Bay of Quinte, Chief Maracle said.

But he said he worries every year, between August and October, about the quality of the water in roughly 100 homes that are along the shores of Lake Ontario and get their water from so-called “shore wells” — shallow wells replenished by the lake.

“When blue-green algae is in the bay, the shore wells are rendered inoperable for both drinking and bathing purposes,” he said. “Other sources of water have to be found for those vital parts of running a household.”

Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, are plant-like organisms that are ordinarily invisible but can multiply in the right conditions until they form a scum-like mass on the surface of lakes and reservoirs.

Some species of blue-green algae produce toxins that can affect the skin, the nervous system and the liver. Consuming water containing blue-green algae can be lethal for pets and livestock, and can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headaches, liver damage and cramps in humans.

The consequences of algal blooms have been felt in communities of all sizes across North America. In February 2020, around 60 people from Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w First Nation in B.C. were evacuated after tests confirmed the presence of cyanobacteria in the community’s water.

Internationally, exposure has on rare occasions led to deaths. In 1996, 100 patients at a clinic in Caruaru, Brazil, developed acute liver failure after receiving routine hemodialysis treatments; 76 people died. The clinic’s water source was later found to be contaminated with toxic algae.

Researchers expect harmful algal blooms to occur more often as climate change warms temperatures globally. Cyanobacteria prefer warmer waters, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air and water also promote their growth. As growth accelerates, a vicious cycle can ensue: the blooms absorb sunlight and warm the water more, leading to the growth of even more algae.

Algal blooms typically appear in the late summer or early fall, but Peter Leavitt, a biology professor at the University of Regina, has seen a shift. “Global warming is advancing the toxic season and making it more profound, so we’re getting (cyanobacteria) earlier and we’re getting more of them,” Leavitt said.

Chief Maracle said he’s concerned about the health impacts blue-green algae could have on residents. At the first signs of blooms, “advisories are sent out to the people who have shore wells not to use their water and not have it come in contact with their skin,” he said.

Blue-green algae isn’t the only climate-related hazard that has limited households’ access to water in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Away from the shore, many homes with individual wells were affected by a severe drought that hit the region in 2016.

Chief Maracle estimated roughly 70 per cent of the wells supplying individual homes in his community went dry during that drought. Water had to be trucked to those homes from the community’s water treatment plant.

“Even with the water delivery truck taking water and putting it in their wells from seven o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock at night, seven days a week, they couldn’t keep up,” he said. “As soon as the water was put in the wells, within three days or so, the water would disappear, be soaked up by the ground.”

He added that water sometimes had to be taken to people in jugs. “I can remember doing that myself on the weekends or taking jugs down to our community centre when a function was going on there. The well would go dry, they’d phone the chief (and) say, ‘We have no water here.’”

Chief Maracle said the solution to both the blue-green algae and drought problems is to connect the affected homes to water mains so they have a reliable supply of treated water.

First Nation communities say more needs to be done to help protect their water infrastructure from climate hazards such as floods. Photo by Ed Morrison

Finding other sources of funding

When homes were first being built in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, individual wells and septic tanks were installed because low density made it difficult to justify the expense of water and sewer lines, Chief Maracle said. But over the years, “there were more homes built, and more septic (tanks) installed, and … the groundwater became polluted.”

The community’s network of water and sewer lines was built in waves, beginning in the 1980s. To secure funding for water mains, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have had to provide the federal government with studies showing existing housing density and expected infilling through new construction make pipes the best way of meeting the community’s water needs, Chief Maracle said.

ISC has committed $58.6 million to a multi-phased water infrastructure project now underway in the community that includes the extension of water mains. The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte are also contributing funds to the project.

Chief Maracle said the project’s current and final phase will connect an additional 115 homes and allow the community to lift five boil water advisories.

But the project’s funding doesn’t stretch far enough to allow the First Nation to fully tackle the drought risks facing homes on wells. Roughly 550 will remain unserviced after the project’s completion next fall.

To install another 23 kilometres of water lines, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte sought funding from Infrastructure Canada’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, a national program created to “support large-scale infrastructure projects (that) help communities better manage the risks of disasters triggered by natural hazards.” The federal department committed $30 million to the extension of water mains in the community in 2019.

“This project will mitigate impacts of future droughts in the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte territory, protecting the community, and the essential services they rely on,” said Mike Bossio, then the Liberal MP for the riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, in a press release about the federal investment.

Only two other First Nations have received money from the $2-billion Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, which has mostly financed municipal and provincial infrastructure projects since its launch in 2018. The Cowichan Tribes, the largest single First Nation in British Columbia, got $24.2 million for a project that will reduce “the impact of storm events and river flooding.” The Skwah First Nation and the City of Chilliwack in B.C.’s Fraser Valley together received $45 million for dikes along the Fraser River and a new drainage pump station.

In total, $99 million has been provided to the three projects. Experts consulted by the consortium said it’s not surprising more of the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund hasn’t gone to First Nations — and that what funding did go to First Nations, went to larger communities or, in one case, a First Nation working with a municipality.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Black of the University of Calgary. “Infrastructure Canada needs to have a dedicated funding stream for First Nations and Indigenous community infrastructure. ... As a First Nation, you’re competing with municipalities and larger infrastructure projects, and given the urgent state of infrastructure in First Nations, you shouldn’t have to compete in that world. They (municipalities) have dedicated grant writers.”

In an email to the consortium, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Canada said the department has also provided funding to some projects that were proposed by regional and provincial governments but will benefit both non-Indigenous and First Nations communities.

For instance, the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund provided $12.5 million to a project seeking to make 50 kilometres of Saskatchewan’s Highway 55 “more resilient in the face of chronic seasonal flooding.” The spokesperson said the highway is “an important connector for Indigenous communities like Red Earth and Shoal Lake Cree nations, as well as regional businesses and the forest industry.”

Before applying for funding from Infrastructure Canada, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte obtained $77,631 for a climate-risk assessment through CIRNAC’s First Nations Adapt program. Chief Maracle said that assessment helped his community make its case to Infrastructure Canada.

In addition to looking at how Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory’s residents get their water, the climate risk assessment also explored the impacts climate change will have on drainage systems, roads, power distribution and other community infrastructure. Chief Maracle said Infrastructure Canada didn’t provide funding to address the risks those infrastructure assets are facing “due to funding pressures on the program.”

He is “very thankful” for the money they did get, though. “That help will go a long way to address the water needs in the community,” Chief Maracle said.

Mitaanjigamiing’s band manager, meanwhile, said he’s satisfied with the work of the consulting firm the First Nation hired to complete their flood vulnerability study, but is frustrated they had to hire them to get the federal government to recognize the climate risks Mitaanjigamiing is facing.

The community already knew what needed to happen to make its infrastructure more resilient and safer, Morrison said.

“We already put that on paper, we already tried to tell the government, but they don’t listen,” he said. “We had to hire a non-Aboriginal firm — our token white guy, to put it on his letterhead — so they would listen.”

— With files from Anukul Thakur (Humber College), Brittany Hobson (APTN News), Krista Hessey (Global News) and Alexis Riopel (Le Devoir)

Editor's note: The story was corrected to explain the $51,354 and $77,631 that Mitaanjigamiing and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte received for their studies was from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

Investigative team:

Institute for Investigative Journalism:

Lila Maître (fellow)

Carleton University:

Erica Endemann, Jordan Haworth, Katie Jacobs, Dexter McMillan (Professor: Christopher Waddell)

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

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

See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits here.