While the Canadian government says it's on track with its 2016 promise to bring safe water to First Nations communities within five years, some are still calling it an ambitious plan.
"First Nations communities are not homogenous. And the water source is not a homogenous source either, for these communities," said Lalita Bhardawaj, a toxicologist and public health professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
"There's no technical reason why we couldn't solve the drinking water problem," is what a retired engineering executive told The Globe and Mail, as part of this newspaper's investigation into the abysmal state of the water on the country's Indigenous reserves. Truer words were never spoken.
Behind every failed First Nations water plant is an unfortunate story. Assigning blame can be challenging: Although Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) pays for most on-reserve infrastructure and sets most of the rules governing design and construction, many other parties are involved, including project managers, engineering and construction firms and First Nations chiefs and councillors.
Serpent River’s woes resemble those of the 90 other Canadian reserves under drinking-water advisories. But there is a cruel twist: This water treatment plant is barely a year old. It is a small yet impressive modern facility, a bewildering but orderly arrangement of pumps, piping and gauges.
"We need to fix this," she said. "A lot of Canadians have been helping with water projects in Africa and all around the world and they had no idea that there were places in Canada where you couldn't just turn on the tap and drink the water, and so I think the consciousness has been raised."
Unfortunately, many small municipalities and First Nations communities in Saskatchewan do not have good-quality source water. Indeed, rural Saskatchewan has some of the poorest-quality raw water sources anywhere.
There are now 16 First Nations in Saskatchewan and one in Alberta producing some of the highest quality tap water in the world using the IBROM process. So there is proof that very poor quality water can be treated most effectively, economically and sustainably.