What Does the 2018 Budget Mean for Canada’s First Nations Reserves?

Canada is always ranked among the top places to live in the world and for good reason. However, despite being held in such high regard, many of its citizens struggle with living conditions that resemble the developing world. Most notably, many First Nations communities across the country do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. Even though the government has been investing in water treatment improvements for the last two decades, many communities, such as Neskantaga First Nation and Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, have been living under a boil advisory since 1995.

During the 2015 Federal Election Campaign, the Liberals pledged a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations communities. A big part of that commitment was to end all boil advisories on reserves by March 2021. However, progress has been slow and there has been a growing sense that the Trudeau government will not meet its goal.

In a new move to take action, the federal government has pledged over $170 million to help ease the strain of water on First Nation Reserves as part of its 2018 budget. With 91 current advisories in effect, the Liberal government is hopeful that in 3 years’ time they will be down zero. As it stands, 42 of those 91 advisories still have no scheduled completion date, demonstrating how much work remains.

Compressed timelines aren’t the only problem. There’s still a gap between the funding and the ultimate goal. According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the federal government is only spending approximately 70 percent of the true cost of eliminating boil-water advisories on First Nations Reserves. That’s not to mention the more long-term challenge of maintaining the infrastructure once it is there.


Past Efforts Show Challenges Ahead

Such pledges have been made in the past and seem to run up against the technical challenges of building and maintaining this kind of infrastructure. Poor workmanship and lack of operating training or experience are factors that are responsible for previously failed implementations. Back in 2011, a report by Canada’s Auditor-General noted that many reserves have less than five hundred residents and “are hampered by the lack of expertise” to deliver key programs.

In addition, many water treatment systems are not catered for sustaining small First Nation reserves. The system standards created by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has lead to the building of treatment plants that are too operationally complex. These systems are much better suited to needs of small cities rather than small rural communities.

Given the size of these challenges, it would seem that the situation is bleak. However, success stories exist. Some water treatment facilities and companies are making serious headway, primarily in Western Canada.


What has made these Treatment Systems Successful?

Communities like Yellow Quill, Saddle Lake, and George Gordon are all examples of First Nations Reserves that have clean, safe drinking water. Why? Because they opted for a different kind of technology for their water treatment plants, known as IBROM.

Reverse Osmosis Membrane (IBROM) treatment process, a process that is recognized by the United Nations, is perfectly suited for small communities and extremely effective at removing impurities. Indeed, this technology can treat even the lowest quality raw water and, compared to conventional treatment plants, can produce tap water of 10 to 100 times better quality.

How does IBROM work? The treatment pushes the water through a series of biofilters that removes a variety of compounds such as iron, manganese, ammonia, and arsenic. It then enters a reverse osmosis system for further filtration. IBROM’s advantage over other technologies is it’s the ability to treat contaminants while greatly reducing the need for backwashing and chemical applications. In addition, IBROM is affordable and can be operated remotely, making it perfect for the many smaller, more remote First Nations communities in Canada.

Sapphire Water, a water treatment company, has played a key role in full scale-IBROM implementations. Their work has resulted in the lifting of the nine-year boil-advisory at Yellow Quill. After this initial success story, at least 18 other First Nations communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta have followed suit. More IBROM treatment systems are scheduled for construction this year, replacing manganese greensand in First Nations communities using groundwater and surface water.

There is no reason these plans can’t be replicated in other areas of Canada where access to safe drinking water is a dire problem. Given how the political stars have aligned, now is the perfect opportunity to deliver to First Nations communities across Canada a fundamental human right: clean drinking water.

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