LYTTON FIRST NATION — An elder in the Lytton First Nation told Jim Brown a story of her own relatives, who died years ago after developing diarrhea. The family’s matriarch, Brown said, never understood the problem was likely caused by their drinking water, which they drew from a ditch.
“It was probably E. coli from the cattle that were walking in her ditch line, because at that time, they used to get their water right from the ditch and drink it,” Brown said this month as he stood over a similar hand-dug canal at a snowy hillside farm in Lytton. “It was the cattle walking in their ditch line, crapping in their ditch line. So they lost quite a bit of children back in that day. They had no control, and they didn’t know what was causing the sickness.”
Brown, who retired last year as Lytton First Nation’s water operator after 35 years working for the band, said it was about 30 years ago that those children died.
“That’s not that long ago,” Brown said.
Today, he said, the woman’s descendants live in her old house, with running water, which, as of December, they can safely drink straight from the tap.
That month, decades-long boil-water advisories were lifted for two smaller water systems in Lytton First Nation. Earlier last year, a centralized water system serving Nickeyeah, another Lytton reserve, officially ended a decades-long water advisory, after the installation of a new treatment plant with help from an international collaborative project connecting Canada and India.
Tony Hnilica, who lives near the new plant, said the system has improved his life.
“Now you don’t have to filter it or anything; it’s just pure,” he said in his kitchen, drawing a glass from the tap and taking a drink. “Now there’s no chance of anybody getting sick from water. … Everybody should have this kind of system.”
Despite the lifting of six multi-year water advisories for various reserves in the Lytton First Nation’s territory, centred where the Fraser River meets the Thompson, other boil-water and do-not-consume advisories have remained or regularly recurred in the community, while some systems that serve just a handful of homes have no water treatment at all.
The Village of Lytton itself, about half of which is First Nations people, also has regularly occurring drinking-water advisories. This situation is not unlike other First Nations across Canada: More than 150 drinking-water advisories remain in effect on reserves in Canada, some of them in place for years.
Brown, who’s active in national networks of First Nations water operators, hopes other communities in Canada can learn from the solutions they’ve found in Lytton.
In October, Brown retired and his nephew, Warren Brown, took over the role of water-system operator after 15 years of working under his uncle. Both take pride when drinking-water advisories are lifted.
About half of Lytton First Nation’s 2,000 members live off the reserves, Warren said, with many having moved to “the city” (often Kamloops, or some other municipality in the area) over the years for more employment opportunities and comfortable living standards.
“The cleaner the water (in Lytton’s reserves), the more people will be inclined, I think, to maybe move back. People grow up here, then they move away to the city, where they can turn their tap on, drink the water, and know it’s safe. Whereas you come out in the boondocks and you can’t do that — sorry, you’ve got to boil your water first, or you buy your bottle water and bring it over,” he said. “But now they can actually turn their water on, just like they would in the city, and drink right out of the tap. It’s great.”
Ending the long-standing Nickeyeah water advisory last year was backed, in part, by IC-IMPACTS, jointly funded by the governments of Canada and India.
IC-IMPACTS brings together scientists and businesses in both countries to address challenges in rural India and among Canada’s First Nations, which, as Irving Leblanc, special adviser to the Assembly of First Nations, told an IC-IMPACTS seminar last year, face similar public health statistics, challenges and opportunities.
The treatment system, drawing water from Lytton’s Nickeyeah Creek, was designed in Madjid Mohseni’s lab at the University of British Columbia, with funding for the pilot project from IC-IMPACTS.
Now, Mohseni and IC-IMPACTS are trying to replicate the success of Lytton’s treatment facility elsewhere in B.C., including northern B.C.’s Tl’azt’en First Nation, and a non-native rural community on Texada Island. Mohseni is also collaborating with scientists in Bangalore on another IC-IMPACTS project, researching desalinization technologies that could apply not only in water-scarce southern India, but also the Canadian prairies, where many aquifers have “brackish water” containing high levels of salt and minerals.
The keys to the system’s design, Mohseni said, are its relative low cost — less than half the amount an engineering firm quoted the band, Brown said — and its ease of operation.
“When engineering firms propose solutions, they often propose the Cadillac solution,” Mohseni said. “Often they are over-designed, and not necessary for what that community needs or has the capacity to operate.”
The Lytton system is a unique combination of existing technologies, Mohseni said. He has learned, from his IC-IMPACTS projects in both India and Canada’s First Nations, the importance of tailoring water solutions for a specific community, with an understanding of its needs and the community’s ability to maintain the system.
He has seen far too many projects, he said, in both India and Canada, where an NGO, company or government installs a large, modern and very expensive water system to great fanfare, then leaves the community on its own, and within a few years, the system falls into disrepair or disuse.
Lytton First Nation band councillor Jim Brown says he felt pride when drinking-water advisories were finally lifted, thanks to the new system.
Mohseni knows one northern B.C. First Nation where a very expensive, decade-old, and dysfunctional water facility has become a “sore point” for the community. “They see that sitting there, it’s a piece of junk to them,” he said. “Someone told me: ‘I wish they would come tear that thing down so I don’t have to look at it.’ ”
IC-IMPACTS estimates that more than five million Canadians live with a risk of drinking-water contamination, most of them in remote rural or First Nations communities.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the topic an election campaign issue, pledging in October 2015 to end boil-water advisories in First Nations communities within five years.
But some have doubts about the government’s ability to meet that goal.
Last month, the Council of Canadians and the David Suzuki Foundation released a report, assessing the government’s progress in the first year of its commitment. The authors reported: “The federal government will not meet its commitment to end all drinking water advisories affecting First Nations communities by 2020 without significant changes to current processes.”
Roxanne Green of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation said: “We have many First Nations communities in Canada that are living in Third World conditions in a first-world country. And that is not acceptable.” Shoal Lake provides fresh tap water for Winnipeg residents 180 kilometres to the west, but the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation haven’t been able to safely drink their tap water for two decades.
In response to questions sent last month, Indigenous Affairs department spokeswoman Valerie Hache said by email: “We are currently on target to lift all long-term drinking water advisories on INAC-funded systems in First Nations communities within the five-year deadline. … We are very confident the glass is half full and will continue to work in full partnership with First Nations communities.”
Hache said “some of the projects identified in the (Council-Suzuki) report are actually close to completion and we hope to have good news for those communities in the coming weeks.”
Following the release of last month’s report, one of the contributors, Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui, analyzed government figures on more than 150 drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities in Canada. Her analysis showed as many as a quarter of First Nations people on reserves in Canada could be affected by drinking-water advisories. The precise number is hard to nail down, since exact population figures were not readily available for communities served by these water systems, many of which are small.
Hache wrote that since November 2015, Indigenous Affairs has supported the lifting of 18 long-term drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities.
While that is true, Lui’s analysis of data obtained from Health Canada showed no significant decrease in the overall number of on-reserve drinking-water advisories since 2010.
Last year’s federal budget offered an additional $1.8 billion over five years to support clean drinking water and the treatment of waste water on reserves.
But Lui pointed to a government-commissioned 2011 National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems, which estimated the combined capital and operating costs to meet the water and waste water needs of individual First Nations communities to be $4.7 billion over 10 years, plus another $419 million a year for operating and maintenance.
The report also found, based on an inspection of the water systems of 587 First Nations communities, that 73 per cent of the systems were assessed to have a medium or high risk, with 39 per cent at high risk.
“The Trudeau government promised real change on a number of things, but this is one of the most pressing.” Lui said. “And we’re waiting to see the real change happen.”’