Officials of a new regional water and sewage utility say First Nations in Atlantic Canada are much further along the path to water sovereignty after a commitment of more than $170 million over 10 years in the last federal budget.
“It gives us self-determination over drinking water for communities that join,” said Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk, also known as Tobique First Nation.
“We’ll have our own people to maintain the systems. … We don’t always have to worry about being underfunded. What if a water break happens or there’s some kind of incident with the ‘one of the assets, we have adequate funding to remedy the publish.’
So far, First Nations have only been able to get funding for their water and wastewater services through the federal government one year at a time, Perley said, and that hasn’t hurt. not enough to do the job well.
Towards better employee compensation
For example, Neqotkuk’s water and sewer budget is under $300,000, he said. And operators are paid about half the rate paid to city workers doing similar work, without benefits.
“It’s a disadvantaged funding system as it’s set up right now,” Perley said. “And we hope to change that.”
The funding pledged is exactly the amount requested for the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority to achieve its goal of supporting the operation, maintenance and upgrade of water and sanitation infrastructure. sewage, he said.
“We came up with a number that we believe is sustainable and that would bring our communities up to a standard comparable to other municipalities,” Perley said, referring to drinking water and effluent quality, state of the infrastructure and employee compensation and benefits.
Any community that signs up would also have access to existing funding streams, Perley said, and the new authority would manage that as well.
A long command to boil water
“Under federal responsibility, they let us down,” he said.
Neqotkuk experienced a boil order that lasted for years.
“We just want to make sure we’re meeting health standards for our people so they can have clean water to drink, wash and cook their meals,” Perley said.
“The only way to ensure that is to have sovereignty over it.”
Perley is one of the chiefs who make up the board of directors of the new water board. It is a non-profit organization owned by First Nations. He holds the position of vice-president.
The council advises the management team of the water authority.
“It’s no longer Canada making those decisions on a project-by-project basis, it’s the board and the communities making those decisions,” said interim chief operating officer James MacKinnon.
The utility is open to any First Nation that wants to join, MacKinnon said. So far, 18 have expressed interest.
In New Brunswick, besides Neqotkuk, they include Elsipogtog, Esgenoôpetitj, St. Mary’s, Oromocto and Kingsclear.
On the list in Nova Scotia are Acadia, Eskasoni, Glooscap, Membertou, Millbrook, Paqtnkek, Pictou Landing, Potlotek, Sipekne’katik and Wagmatcook
In Prince Edward Island, Abagweit and Lennox Island are interested.
Some preliminary work has been done in recent years.
Last year, MacKinnon said, engineers traveled to assess the condition of existing systems and the needs of communities.
At this point, drinking water issues in the area have generally been resolved, he said.
The most pressing issues relate to sanitation systems.
That’s certainly the case in Neqotkuk, Perley said. The community is growing, but its sewage system is at capacity, he said.
“We try to plan for the long term to make sure the best quality water is produced and the highest quality effluent possible is released back into nature,” MacKinnon said.
Water is considered extremely important in Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey culture.
An elders’ lodge will advise the water board to ensure traditional knowledge is incorporated into decision-making, MacKinnon said.
He said the authority was also working to implement water safety plans, which are a “proactive method of risk management in water supply systems” used in more than 90 countries, but not yet popular in Canada, outside of Alberta.
Water safety plans focus on mitigation procedures, he said, such as identifying and managing operational risks.
With the recent funding commitment, the authority can present a more detailed business plan to 17 communities that participated in asset management planning, MacKinnon said, and they can make informed decisions about formal membership. .
Perley and MacKinnon hope that will happen in the summer and fall and that the authority will be fully operational by December, from its headquarters in Millbrook First Nation.