A Northwestern Ontario First Nation that had been on a boil water advisory for 24 years received this year’s award for building the best small drinking water system in the province.
The Ontario Public Works Association presented the 2022 Small Town and First Nations Public Works Project of the Year award to Shoal Lake First Nation #40 at a ceremony in Mississauga , in Ontario, on Tuesday.
The award recognizes Shoal Lake’s new No. 40 Water Treatment Plant as having provided unique opportunities for local supply and employment.
“It was successful because the community controlled every facet, every step of the process,” said Cuyler Cotton, the project’s technical advisor.
The $33 million plant opened in September and supplies water to more than 100 First Nation buildings near the Manitoba border. Its network leaves room for new homes to be built, as members return to live in the community.
Shoal Lake #40, which straddles the Ontario-Manitoba border, has 667 registered members, about 300 of whom live on reserve.
It had been under a potable water advisory since 1997, until the facility opened last September.
“Our objective was to have drinking water”
“We had no intention of winning an award like this,” said Shoal Lake #40 Coun. Bill Wapay. “Our goal was to have clean drinking water, but the water treatment project was a unique project from the start.”
The project was designed as a pilot project by Indigenous Services Canada to see if an Indigenous-specific tendering process could better serve Indigenous communities. Currently, all projects worth more than $500,000 must go through national bidding, according to a ministry spokesperson.
The plant was built on time and on budget over 18 months, as part of an Indigenous Services Canada pilot project. Its procurement process required companies to be majority owned by First Nations. Of the three qualified applicants, the winning bid was a partnership between Kekekoziibih of Shoal Lake #40 and Sigfusson Northern Ltd.
The tendering process also required that the project employ at least 30% of the First Nations workforce. He far exceeded that, with 53%.
“Local labor, local equipment, local employment brought back to the community…We built this facility from the ground up, from site preparation to building nuts and bolts,” Wahpay said.
“It’s an incredible, incredible project. So the majority of projects should be done on all first nations, not just first nations, but all rural municipalities in the region, across Canada. This is how it should be done.
Andrew Burdett is the Superintendent of Sigfusson Northern.
Burdett oversaw construction of the water plant and was involved with Shoal Lake #40 for more than two years in the New School and Freedom Road, the landmark project completed in 2019 that connected the peninsula to the Trans-Canada Highway and has ended a century of isolation.
WATCH | Shoal Lake #40 First Nation Celebrates End of Drinking Water Advisory
Burdett said Kekekoziibih’s involvement was crucial because its leaders knew local residents so well that they were able to tailor their personal journeys to successfully recruit and retain workers.
Some community members who had experience in previous projects were able to start their own contracting businesses and purchase equipment, which he sees as contributing to a sustainable local industry.
“It really fostered independence for business owners,” Burdett said. “It’s definitely a change from normal where we go to communities and leave with all our gear. They ended up with something and a bit of a construction company to go on.”
Colliers Project Leaders of Thunder Bay, Ontario is evaluating the pilot project process for the federal government.
Colliers senior project manager Sean Petrus said he observed enthusiastic workers on site and motivated to work hard out of community pride.
Although the report is still being written, Petrus will recommend that this model be applied to projects in Indigenous communities across Canada, including exploring value-for-dollar equations that could keep expenses low without having to authorize projects publicly, beyond local companies.
“I wish First Nations had more opportunities where they don’t have to fight so hard to get the work that’s done right next to them,” Petrus said. “Opportunities for self-determination should be offered to more communities so that they can achieve successes like the successes that have been achieved by Shoal Lake #40 in this process.”
The evaluation report for the Shoal Lake #40 pilot project is expected to be completed this spring, according to Indigenous Services Canada.