Untapped: A Nation’s fight for water

A B.C. reserve has been 17 years without safe drinking water. Many don’t even have tap water

Toronto Star & StarMetro Vancouver | Aug. 10, 2018 | Link to web version at thestar.com

Tu-ninq’ez. Cold, fresh water in the Tsilhqot’in language spoken on the remote reserves west of Williams Lake, B.C.

On Xeni Gwet’in First Nation — the most remote of the six Tsilhqot’in member bands — tu-ninq’ez (pronounced “too-ning-KAWZ”) is at the cultural heart of their salmon-fishing, wild horse-coralling, hay-baling lifestyle.

Despite that, the 252-resident community has been under a boil-water advisory for 17 years, which Ottawa originally announced in 2001 because of a high risk of sewage contamination, according to documents.

Their two water systems have been deemed undrinkable for so long that most residents StarMetro met drink it anyway, explaining that generations of their people have always consumed their land’s water.

“We’ve always drunk this from the tap,” Charlene Quilt said, as her mother Elsie Quilt entered the kitchen of their small shared cabin, on the edge of a marsh from which their water is pumped. “Nobody’s got sick. It’s clean.”

The kitchen sink tap indeed flows colourless and odourless. Her mother nods patiently as StarMetro’s questions are translated into Tsilhqot’in, the only language she speaks.

Unlike this home, many houses in Xeni Gwet’in don’t even have running water or plumbing at all. Elders regularly drag two 20-litre jugs — equivalent to the weight of roughly 150 cans of soup, or nearly 70 cartons of eggs — from a creek down the valley.

“It’s always been like this, a long time,” recalled Sonny Lulua on the couch in the log cabin he built by hand. “For many years we’ve gone to get water. When we first moved in here, we’d carry buckets down to the creek way down there to get water.

“I guess I was just younger then, I guess. We’ve been fine, but it’s pretty hard when it’s cold weather, you have to chop through the ice — and getting old makes it harder sometimes.”

His wife Betty Lulua — her hair still wet from a cooling lake swim with her daughter-in-law and many local kids — interrupts to tell him something in Tsilhqot’in, still spoken as mother tongue in the remote reserves; some elders StarMetro met with the help of a translator as it remains their only language.

The couple laugh together before she translates: “And try holding one jug in each hand.”

In the language there are distinct words for running water, shallow water, deep water, turquoise water, rainwater, rivers, springs, rapids, light rains, slush, lake ice, thin ice, cracked ice, clear ice, glaciers, wash basins, tubs, and kettles; the kitchen sink.

The Tsilhqot’in name itself means “blue water people.” Icy, turquoise waters — melted off glaciers that gaze down from all sides of the Nemiah Valley — are in their soul.

Xeni Gwet’in’s nearly two decades under boil-water advisories make them one of 14 bands in B.C. still under long-term warnings; only one other First Nation exceeds theirs, by two years.

That’s despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise that “all long-term drinking water advisories to be lifted by March 2021” for First Nations across the country. Since the Liberals’ election win, the promise has been fulfilled for 67 bands — but 34 have since been added.

In an interview, federal Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott said her Liberal government is on track to meet its promise, but that a lot of work remains on a protracted and complicated problem that may take years in some places to resolve. (B.C. saw long-term First Nations drinking water advisories decrease by less than two-thirds, from 25 before the Liberals took office, to the current 14).

“We have actually made significant progress in this area because it was a big priority of the Prime Minister,” Philpott said by phone. “Some of these communities actually require more than a couple of years to design — and sometimes build from scratch — a water system that will meet the unique water needs of that community; many of these communities are remote.

“By the time you design and construct the system, get the equipment and materials into a community, train up new water operators and develop a maintenance plan, it can be a matter of a few years … And you have to make sure there’s a prevention plan so you don’t have communities that slip into a new drinking water advisory.”

Recently elected Xeni Gwet’in chief Jimmy Lulua doesn’t have running water in his own house. He brushes his teeth from a cup. It is a daily reminder of how precious water is to his people — but, he noted, “It’s not by choice.”

“We’ve never been high on the government’s priority list,” he said. “We live in a third world country in one of the richest countries in the world.”

For the First Nations Health Authority, a body unique to B.C. with an Indigenous leadership council, the fact that they only gained Indigenous jurisdiction over issues of water quality and health on the province’s 198 reserves could be light at the end of the pipe.

That’s because finally their leadership, through agreements with Ottawa and Victoria, have been able to finally hear and heed local community concerns, fears and needs around how they get water services — and tap into local wisdom to start solving decades of substandard outcomes.

“It’s basically neglect — wilful neglect,” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the First Nations Health Council. “When you look at Indigenous policy, it’s always been a situation where we’re not a priority.

“Our communities still don’t have the infrastructure taken for granted by other British Columbians … The big ‘I’ is infrastructure.”

The authority’s environmental public health manager Linda Pillsworth explained that water advisories like on Xeni Gwet’in can happen for many reasons. Despite a water tower from a creek above town, there was deemed an E. coli risk from sewage — “that type of (water) source is subject to contamination,” she said, “so treatment is necessary.” The remoter the community and fewer homes, the greater the challenge to improve, maintain and operate it.

Additionally, on Xeni Gwet’in many community elders don’t want chlorine in their water supply, the solution that until recently dominated federal plans.

“The principle of adding something chemical to water that’s pure doesn’t resonate very well — despite the positive benefits of chlorine and minimal risk,” she said. “Systems that have strong community involvement and engagement in defining what is acceptable to them have the most success.

“That’s integral because it puts the decision-making and awareness into the hands of the community.”

Boil-water advisories are a crucial precaution when safety can’t be guaranteed. And water contamination can be fatal, as was learned in Walkerton, Ont. in 2000. But long-term advisories don’t mean the original concern has been resolved.

“Over the longer term, they will get ignored,” she warned. “The concept of pure, fresh and clean sometimes drives people to drink untreated water: ‘It looks clean, we’ve drunk it for decades how could it be a problem now?’

“But there is a real risk depending on the system and source of contamination. Similar to Walkerton (Ont.), if somebody does drink the water they could get sick. And it’s a part concern for bacteria because E. coli can be deadly.”

On the reserve itself, the concerns over chlorine weren’t universal — some wanted running water in the first place, others who had it said an occasional chlorine shock to clean up ultraviolet-sterilized water would be acceptable.

Several cited bad taste and health concerns about adding chemicals to traditionally clean water that one seniors health worker told StarMetro was “like prayer here.”

Marilyn Baptiste, the band’s former chief who formerly served on the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs executive, is one of those opposed to water chlorination unless it’s just occasional.

“We have pristine mountain glacier water all around us,” she said, leaning on her pickup truck near the current treatment plant. “We all said we seriously need water to the east of the community first. These homes require water; they denied them because there’s not enough homes down there.

“We’re remote, we’re off-the-grid. which is the greatest thing for us as Xeni Gwet’in … but these are common-sense things. Water means everything to us; it heals us.”

The same day StarMetro toured with Chief Lulua, a letter arrived from Ottawa. Despite long-standing federal reluctance, funds would flow to replace the ineffective chlorine treatment plant with a system allowing both chlorine and UV.

Philpott said “all of the work is done in full consultation with chief and council, and band leadership” on fixing water issues, “so that whatever design solutions are implemented, they are driven by communities and we are there to provide the appropriate support.”

That’s not how Chief Lulua describes it.

“Ottawa still makes decisions from there,” he said. “The water tower and one water treatment plant basically didn’t involve us, they just came in and said, ‘This is what you get.’

“We are getting there but it’s slow. We’ve got a long way to go yet, but at least we’re at the table with Canada now.”

The government has already spent $3.2 million on Xeni Gwet’in water system improvements. Indigenous Services Canada said via email the advisory could end by December. But its plans for a UV-and-chlorine system won’t bring water to homes with none.

“Now they’ve come out a little bit,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they’ve got to walk their talk. So far, it’s been empty promises.

“I challenge them to stick their neck out a little more; we stick our neck out way farther.”

Or as the health council’s Grand Chief Kelly quips, “It’s our reality; the way we work with that reality is not to give up.”