Officials with a fledgling regional water and sewerage utility say First Nations in Atlantic Canada are a lot further along on the path to water sovereignty following a commitment of more than $170 million over 10 years in the latest federal budget.
"It gives us self-determination on drinking water for communities that join," said Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk, also known as Tobique First Nation.
"We'll have our own people maintaining the systems. … We don't always have to worry about being underfunded. And if a water break happens or there's some sort of incident with any of the assets, we have adequate funding to remedy the issue."
Until now, First Nations have only been able to get funding for their water and wastewater services through the federal government one year at a time, said Perley, and it's not been enough to do the job right.
Looking at better pay for employees
For example, Neqotkuk's water and sewerage budget is less than $300,000, he said. And operators are paid about half the rate paid to municipal employees doing similar work, with no benefits.
"It's a disadvantaged funding system the way it's set up now," said Perley. "And we hope to change that."
The promised funding is exactly the amount that was requested in order for the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority to follow through on its goal of taking over responsibility for operation, maintenance, and capital upgrades of water and wastewater infrastructure, he said.
"We came up with a number we felt was sustainable and would take our communities to a standard that was comparable to other municipalities," said Perley, referring to drinking water and effluent quality, infrastructure condition and employee pay and benefits.
Any community that signs on would still have access to existing funding streams as well, said Perley, and the new authority would manage that, too.
A long boil-water order
"Under the federal responsibility, they failed us," he said.
Neqotkuk experienced a boil order that lasted years.
"We just want to make sure we're up to a healthy standard for our people so they can have clean water to drink, bathe and prepare food with," Perley said.
"The only way to ensure that is to have sovereignty over it."
Perley is one of the chiefs who make up the board of directors for the new water authority. It's a First Nations-owned non–profit organization. He serves as vice chair.
The board advises the water authority corporate leadership team.
"It's no longer Canada making those decisions project by project, but the board and communities making those decisions," said interim chief operating officer James MacKinnon.
The utility is open to any First Nation that wants to join, said MacKinnon. So far, 18 have expressed interest.
In New Brunswick, besides Neqotkuk, they include Elsipogtog, Esgenoôpetitj, St. Mary's, Oromocto and Kingsclear.
On the list in Nova Scotia are Acadia, Eskasoni, Glooscap, Membertou, Millbrook, Paqtnkek, Pictou Landing, Potlotek, Sipekne'katik and Wagmatcook
In Prince Edward Island, Abagweit and Lennox Island are interested.
Some preliminary work has been done in the last several years.
Last year, said MacKinnon, engineers travelled around assessing the condition of existing systems and needs of communities.
At this point, drinking water issues in the region have generally been addressed, he said.
The more pressing issues are with wastewater systems.
That's certainly the case in Neqotkuk, said Perley. The community is growing, but its sewage system is at capacity, he said.
"We're trying to plan long term to ensure the highest quality of water is produced and the highest possible quality effluent is discharged into nature," MacKinnon said.
Water is considered extremely important in both Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqey culture.
An elders lodge will advise the water authority board to ensure traditional knowledge is embedded in decision-making, said MacKinnon.
He said the authority is also working to implement water safety plans, which are a "proactive method for managing risk in water supply systems" used in over 90 countries, but not yet popular in Canada, outside of Alberta.
Water safety plans focus on mitigation procedures, he said, such as identification and management of operational hazards.
With the recent funding commitment, the authority can present a more detailed business plan to 17 communities that participated in asset management planning, said MacKinnon, and they can make informed decisions about whether to officially sign on.
Perley and MacKinnon hope this will happen in the summer and fall and the authority will be fully operational by December, from its head office at Millbrook First Nation.