Atlantic First Nations Water Authority signs deal to take over water services in 17 First Nations

From left, AFNWA interim CEO Carl Yates, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall and AFNWA interim COO James MacKinnon at the signing of the transfer agreement on Nov. 7 in Halifax. (Adam Gould/AFNWA  - image credit)
From left, AFNWA interim CEO Carl Yates, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall and AFNWA interim COO James MacKinnon at the signing of the transfer agreement on Nov. 7 in Halifax. (Adam Gould/AFNWA - image credit)

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority has signed a transfer agreement with Indigenous Services Canada to take over water and wastewater management in 17 First Nations in the region.

The communities will still need a ratifying vote to officially come aboard but Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk, a Wolastoqey community 120 kilometres northwest of Fredericton, said the agreement signed Nov. 7 in Halifax represents much-needed empowerment for First Nations.

"We take control of our own water," said Perley, vice-chair of the board of directors for the water authority.

"The federal government has failed Indigenous people across the country when it comes to water, water infrastructure, wastewater, wastewater infrastructure ever since they put us on reserves."

He said his community has dealt with chronic underfunding, boil water advisories, asbestos piping and outdated technology. Perley estimates it will take an investment of over $7 million to tackle the water issues plaguing his community.

David Irish/CBC
David Irish/CBC

Perley said the previous top-down approach by the federal government just wasn't working.

"In order to ensure our people have above standard drinking water, we have to be in control and we have to be responsible for it," said Perley.

He said he's aware other First Nations communities across the country are dealing with long term boil water advisories and he hopes the AFNWA can serve as a model to help them.

Indigenous Services Canada said as of Nov. 16, First Nations have lifted 136 long-term drinking water advisories.

"Initiatives are underway in 27 communities to resolve the remaining 31 advisories," said Vincent Gauthier, a spokesperson for ISC, in an emailed statement to CBC News.

Carl Yates, AFNWA's interim CEO, said instead of 17 communities bargaining individually with ISC for funding, the authority will represent them all. Yates said that adds to their bargaining power.

The service delivery transfer agreement sets out ISC's and the AFNWA's obligations. The federal government has committed about $257 million in funding, including $173 million over 10 years for operations and capital programs.

He said the water authority took 15 years to implement but he hopes other regions have a shorter road to making their own First Nations-led water authority.

Logan Perley/CBC
Logan Perley/CBC

Michael Sadler, executive director of the First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council in British Columbia which works to solve longstanding housing and infrastructure issues facing First Nations, said an Indigenous-led authority is vital to solving outstanding issues.

"When you're doing things for yourself, you got much more stake in it," said Sadler, who is Gitksan from Kispiox First Nation.

He said as of October there were 19 First Nations communities in B.C. with water quality advisories ranging from boil water to do-not-consume notices.

He said a First Nations-led water authority in B.C. would be welcome if that's what the 203 First Nations in the province wanted.