TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY — As of June, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation will have been living under a long-term drinking water advisory for 10 years.
Chief Don Maracle is getting tired of waiting for a solution.
“First Nations have been getting water treatment plants now for a few decades. We were one of the last on the list to get a water treatment plant. Why, I don't know,” Maracle says. “We’re the fourth-largest [Indigenous] community in Ontario, but it's whoever they say is a priority.”
In the meantime, his hopes ride on a promise. In January, the federal Indigenous Affairs department told the community that it’s near the top of a list of First Nation communities in urgent need of clean drinking water.
“The department said the communities that had boil water advisories the longest were going to be prioritized first,” Maracle says. Now the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte — whose territory, known as Tyendinaga, is located just east of Belleville — have been told they’re a priority. And the chief expects them to be treated as such. “We’ve been on there since 2008, so we must be their first priority.”
During the last federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised a Liberal government would end boil-water advisories on First Nations across the country by March 2021. In Oct. 2015, Trudeau said there were 133 boil-water advisories in 93 different communities. As of last week, 76 long-term water advisories were still in effect — including the Tyendinaga Mohawk territory.
While water crises at Kashechewan and Attawapiskat in the far north have made more headlines, Chief Maracle wants people to know that drinking water advisories affect First Nations in southern Ontario, too. At Tyendinaga (where the population is around 2,200), every home that relies on a well is on a precautionary boil-water advisory, and the water infrastructure that does exist is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Weather events — such as a drought in 2016 and flooding in 2017 — often contaminate the water. In 2015, Maracle told the CBC that 53 per cent of the wells on the reserve have tested positive for E. coli and fecal bacteria.
“The community’s top priority is access to safe drinking water,” Maracle says. “I mean, what kind of home life do you have if you don't have safe drinking water?”
Maracle says that he used to get calls in the middle of the night from the community centre when the water tank would go dry, and he would bring them jugs of water. “I used to do that — as the chief. Where else would you see that? Would you ever see the mayor of Toronto do that?”
The long-term advisories and water infrastructure project delays, Maracle says, would be unacceptable in cities and non-Indigenous communities. “It's really environmental racism.”
Now, despite years of feeling neglected, the chief is feeling hopeful the federal government has at last heard his message. Jane Philpott, minister of Indigenous Services, and Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, are both medical doctors; Maracle says they both “get it” when it comes to the importance of clean water on Canada’s First Nations.
“We've gained an awful lot of ground since we had our meeting with Jane Philpott. There's a staff working with us, but we're not going to tolerate a lot of delay. It's time now to get this built and be done with it,” Maracle says. He believes the federal Liberal government’s March 2021 deadline for clean water is not soon enough.
Maracle is frustrated by delays caused by bureaucratic red tape and a seemingly endless consultation process to get projects off the ground. “Indian Affairs loves to fund consultants, so I guess that’s what we have to do. That's their specialty, funding consultants,” says the chief.
David Souliere, chief administrative officer for the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, used to work for Indigenous Affairs as a capital funding officer for the Ontario region. He is familiar with both sides of the ongoing struggle between band leadership and the federal government. Souliere believes that the Indigenous and Northern Affairs headquarters needs to delegate more authority to the regional offices. As it stands, the process duplicates the decision-making process because local engineers must have their work checked in Ottawa.
“What headquarters does is perform the exact same function that the folks in the region have already done, essentially double-checking their own people's work,” Souliere says. “You're basically saying that an engineer in Ottawa who’s never been on site and doesn't work with the community has a better idea of what is acceptable to that community than a person in the region that's actually working on it.”
After four years of this kind of negotiation, Tyendinaga finally took a step forward in 2016 with a new $30-million water treatment plant. It provides clean water to 68 homes and other buildings, including a school and a community centre.
Maracle acknowledges the importance of the treatment plant, but says it was long overdue. A second phase of the water infrastructure project will see the creation of a water tower that will connect even more homes to a clean water source. Maracle says the community cannot wait another 10 years for that project to be completed.
In response to questions from TVO about the water problems at Tyendinaga, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada wrote by email: “Canada can only renew the nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations if it can ensure First Nation communities have safe, clean, reliable drinking water … ISC is working closely with Mohawks of the Bay Quinte First Nation to support projects that will eliminate these long-term drinking water advisories.”
The department also noted that the First Nation receives funding through Indigenous Services Canada to employ a water quality monitor, who works directly for the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte.
In the bigger picture, Maracle says Ontario First Nations don’t receive an equitable share of federal funding compared to communities in other provinces. Figures compiled last year by the Ontario region of Indigenous and Northern Affairs last August show that Ontario is home to 22 per cent of Canada’s First Nations population — the largest provincial First Nations population in the country — but receives just 12.3 per cent of the overall funding allocated for First Nations.
“No country waxes more eloquently than Canada at the United Nations, saying safe drinking is a human right,” Maracle says.
He also notes that Canada rhapsodizes in favour of Indigenous rights on the international stage. “And now it’s time to deliver.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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