Meet the Indigenous youth who could solve Canada’s water crisis

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An empty jug from Grassy Narrows First Nations (Daily VICE)

An empty jug from Grassy Narrows First Nations (Daily VICE)

Before he became a water treatment plant operator on his isolated reserve, Nico Suggashie was feeling depressed — a problem many young Indigenous people struggle with on First Nations in Canada.

Now the 24-year-old has a sense of pride after preventing a boil water advisory in Poplar Hill First Nation in northern Ontario.

"I was looking for any job at the time," Suggashie remembers of the reserve, where many young people struggle with unemployment. "I was unemployed for a while after finishing school, taking any training programs they were offering, and this was one of the first ones, and I'm still going at it."

Suggashie was hired as part of a new program that trains young Indigenous people to operate water treatment plants. In its first year, the program has ended three of four boil water advisories — a big success considering the 131 drinking water advisories on 88 reserves across Canada, some of which have been in place for decades.

The program's success is due to its focus on training young Indigenous people to operate water treatment plants that were installed in the late 1990s — but for which no one was ever properly trained to operate.

Proponents of the program, called the Safe Water Project, say it could fulfill Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to end boil water advisories on Aboriginal reserves within five years — and it could give the young people it employs a sense of purpose in communities with high depression and suicide rates among youth.

And with an operating budget of only $385,000 a year, plus one-time expenses for equipment, it's a cheap solution.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada funded the program entirely in its first year, and the project's backers will find out this week whether INAC will renew their funding.

Suggashie recalls the time he re-tested a botched water sample, which stopped Poplar Hill from declaring a water emergency.

Nico Suggashie takes a selfie inside the water treatment plant.

Nico Suggashie takes a selfie inside the water treatment plant.

"You have to be very careful when taking a sample because we could contaminate it ourselves. And one of the other operators contaminated one of the samples by accident. So we were able to retest it and show that it was a false positive," he said.

"One thing that was taught to me in the training is, a lot of times no sample is better than a bad sample—due to false positives."

Any time there's a boil water advisory, it can also contaminate the community's trust in the water supply. Whenever he gets the chance, Suggashie reassures people the water is safe to drink.

Before he was hired, the water would smell strongly of chlorine due to over-chlorination, so people wouldn't drink it. "They drink it unboiled now," he says, proudly.

Outside the water treatment plant. (Nico Suggashie)

Outside the water treatment plant. (Nico Suggashie)

Last winter, he gave a tour of the water treatment plant to some students. "The experience made me feel so proud and accomplished," Suggashie said.

"If they want to solve their drinking water advisory problem in First Nations within five years, they'd better take a really hard look at what we're doing and replicate it elsewhere, as well as continuing to support us," says Barry Strachan, Public Works Manager for Keewaytinook Okimakanak Northern Chiefs Council, where the pilot program has operated for the last year.

"Given our success, I think they have a really good chance," he said when asked if the program could solve water advisories on reserves across the country within five years. "If you replicate it tribal council by tribal council, you can expect similar results."

When Strachan started his public works job in 1995, many of the isolated First Nations he oversaw had no infrastructure at all. The people who lived there drove on unpaved roads and drew buckets of water from the nearby lakes and boil it. But in the late 1990s, the federal government made a commitment to pave the roads, extend power lines and build water and sewage facilities, he said.

By 2000, the First Nations he supervises had brand new infrastructure, including water treatment plants. But, Strachan says, the government "missed an opportunity" to train them to operate the facilities.

"The problem we have is that the facility built to treat the water can easily treat the water so it's safe, but it's a complex piece of equipment that people weren't properly trained to operate," he explains. The water treatment plants were staffed by people who weren't properly trained. In Poplar Hill, that meant the water was over-chlorinated.

The result, despite the brand new facilities, was long-standing boil water advisories.

And in some cases the treatment plants actually made the problem worse, with the sewage facilities dumping human waste into the lake the water was drawn from.

A plaque affixed to the plant. (Nico Suggashie)

A plaque affixed to the plant. (Nico Suggashie)

The Safe Water Project started operating in April 2015. At the time, there were four drinking water advisories in the area. "Within three months, we had three of those removed," Strachan says.

In some cases, the Chief and Councils agreed to remove existing water treatment operators so someone young with the proper training could step into the job.

If the government simply throws money at replacing equipment, upgrading existing plants and building new ones, they will end up with the same problem, Strachan said. "Because the foundation of success are the people."

Though the program's goal was to solve water advisories, it's also had another unintentional consequence, he says — giving hope to young people suffering from a lack of it.

"We've been able to invest in these folks. And as a result I've really seen an actual change in their demeanor, from being a little morose and depressed to, 'Hey I have a job that's important. I have something to focus on.'"

"That obviously wasn't something we thought about when we designed this program, but it's a happy accident that it turned out that way," Strachan said.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont