November 9, 2005
Plop, plop go the bags of money being dropped from a plane into the Kashechewan swamp. "That ought to do it" says the pilot as he flies out of the National Post’s editorial cartoon. The cartoon captures the absurdity of the political response to the discovery of E. coli in the drinking water of the native community in Northern Ontario.
For decades, governments have been content to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on bogus solutions to the water crisis on reserves. No level of government has been prepared to make the legal and operational changes required to ensure the safety of water. Kashechewan represents the nadir of waste and incompetence. Out of it, however, may flow a model that can be used to deliver safe water to reserves and other isolated communities across Canada.
The Kashechewan water crisis gave politicians – federal, provincial and aboriginal – the opportunity to spend other people’s money with abandon. The provincial government airlifted from the reserve 1,118 residents – not only those fearing they might have been sickened by the tainted water but also anyone identified by community leaders as wanting to leave. Emergency management spokesman Bruce O’Neil described the selection process: "All we did was say, ‘Give us 37 names for the next plane.’ If they wanted to go, they went."
No one seems to know or care how much the evacuation cost. The provincial official in charge of the evacuation, Emergency Management Commissioner Julian Fantino, admitted, "I don’t have the figure for that." Indeed, his office will never even see the invoices for the expenses he and his provincial cohorts racked up; Indian and Northern Affairs Canada will be paying the bills.
INAC also does not know the extent of the costs it will bear. Campbell Morrison, press secretary for Minister Andy Scott, suspects that the $300-million estimate bandied about in the media is based on inappropriate comparisons with the cost of relocating the people of Davis Inlet to the new town of Natuashish. Mr. Morrison suggests that the bill for the Kashechewan evacuation is likely to be in the low millions, and that additional costs related to health care, water treatment, community development and relocation cannot yet be estimated.
While the costs are murky, one thing is crystal clear: The tainted water did not justify the evacuation. Of the roughly 700 health assessments completed by the middle of last week, not one found an illness related to E. coli.
Meanwhile, the federal government is incurring another set of equally unnecessary costs. Not to be outdone by the drama of the province-led evacuation, the federal government called in the Canadian Forces, asking them to bring to Kashechewan a 10-tonne reverse osmosis water purification unit – a unit capable of treating water contaminated by nuclear, biological or chemical warfare agents. Although the water purifier requires a crew of three engineers or technicians, the Canadian Forces sent a detachment of 11 engineers and other military personnel to operate it, three two-person liaison teams and 30 Rangers to provide a "presence" in the community.
There was only one problem: The forces and their purification equipment arrived on the scene 13 days after Kashechewan’s own system had begun producing safe water. INAC knew the E. coli problem had been solved. Upon learning of the water contamination, INAC had summoned to Kashechewan Northern Waterworks Inc., a small water treatment firm based in Red Lake, Ont. It had taken a company technician just six hours to repair the malfunctioning chlorination system. The E. coli had disappeared faster than you can say "competent operator."
So what is the military doing in Kashechewan? Joseph Young, acting director of funding services for INAC, explains that the department made a commitment to provide bottled water until all of the repairs that are envisioned for the plant have been completed. The department is just three weeks away from fulfilling an $861,000 program to repair and upgrade the eight-year-old plant. Only the completion of those repairs will signal the military that it can go home.
Might it have made sense to instead use the production of clean water as the benchmark? If not, might it have been cheaper to fly in bottled water than to fly in a purification unit along with 47 Canadian Forces members? Who knows? INAC doesn’t have a handle on the costs. Mr. Young explains: "The details of what it’s costing are being worked out with DND." Nor does DND know what the operation will cost. Lieutenant Morgan Bailey at the media liaison office explained: "Generally, the cost is only tabulated at the end."
Amid such senseless waste lies one sensible upgrade to Kashechewan’s water system. INAC and the band are planning to install a SCADA system – Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition – that would monitor pumps, valves, flow rates, chlorine levels, turbidity and other indicators of treatment plant operations, and electronically relay the data to Northern Waterworks Inc. These off-site experts would not only respond to emergencies but would also provide ongoing assistance and training.
Such contractual arrangements with certified water providers, implemented not just in Kashechewan but in troubled reserves across the country, would bring both expertise and accountability to systems notoriously devoid of both. They would solve several problems recently highlighted by the Office of the Auditor-General’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. In September, for example, she reported that "most water treatment plant operators in First Nations communities do not possess the knowledge and skills required to operate their plants safely" and that "regular tests of drinking water are not carried out in most First Nations." She noted that INAC determined in 2001 that approximately 550 native water systems – representing 75% of all systems, up from 25% five years earlier – posed significant health and safety risks. The decline came despite federal funding exceeding $2-billion over the past decade.
The commissioner described a dysfunctional system of oversight in which no one can be held legally responsible for the provision of safe water. No laws or regulations govern the provision of water on reserves. Although the federal government can attach conditions to the funds it provides for construction, operations and monitoring, few mechanisms exist to track the use of funds. Withdrawing funding is not an option, since drinking water is an essential service. "It is not clear who is ultimately accountable for the safety of drinking water," the commissioner concluded.
With First Nations contracting with expert water providers, the clear framework for accountability desired by the commissioner would be realized. The contracts would define who is responsible for what, establish clear performance and monitoring requirements, and specify penalties if the requirements were not met. In setting out legally enforceable standards, arrangements between natives and water service providers could achieve what governments at all levels have failed to achieve: clean, safe water.