This First Nation is just 20 km from downtown Prince George — but they still can't drink their water

·4 min read
Gouchie purchased an electronic pump to help her mother, an elder, navigate the challenges of using the five-gallon jugs while their tap water remains dangerous. (Shayna Desjarlais - image credit)
Gouchie purchased an electronic pump to help her mother, an elder, navigate the challenges of using the five-gallon jugs while their tap water remains dangerous. (Shayna Desjarlais - image credit)

Kym Gouchie lives just 20 kilometers away from downtown Prince George, northern B.C.'s largest city and one that has been rated as having one of the best water systems in the country — but because she is on reserve land, she has been unable to drink from her taps for more than a year.

Gouchie lives with her mother on the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation reserve, which was established after its members were removed from the Lheidli T'enneh village near present-day downtown Prince George in 1913.

In 2019, the First Nation announced the installation of water filtration systems, which have since failed.

As a result, more than 100 on-reserve members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation are without drinkable tap water.

Gouchie says she has to constantly monitor her young grandchildren when they visit to make sure they remember to use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, and bathing safely.

"[It's] anxiety-building," she said.

She says water from the tap sometimes comes out purple, or with black specks.

Half of the community have been under a water advisory since November 2020, before the notice was expanded in July to include all households on the reserve.

Kym Gouchie
Kym Gouchie

Residents have been told not to drink, cook, or brush their teeth with tap water after concerning levels of manganese were found in the water supply.

According to Health Canada, manganese can cause neurological and behavioural effects and deficits in memory, attention, and motor skills. Infants are particularly at risk.

'We just want the basic water'

Lheidli T'enneh elected chief Dolleen Logan says they are working on restoring the systems, but she doesn't know how long that will take.

At a press conference Friday to mark one year since the advisory was issued, Logan expressed frustration with the delays and pointed directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who she said had failed to live up to his promise of bringing clean drinking water to reserves across Canada.

"We had hope, in 2015," she said. "It's frustrating for us, because it's now going into 2022 and it's the same issues."

Indigenous Services Canada told CBC they had plans to begin upgrading the Lheidli T'enneh water treatment plants by October, but Lheidli T'enneh capital projects manager Zawad Abedin said while improvements have been made, they are not long-term solutions.

He said testing in October showed the changes had reduced manganese levels, but they were still not at levels acceptable by Health Canada and instead he is hoping for a new water treatment system altogether.

Logan is unsure if that would happen.

"They dangle the carrot, give us the hope ... but no," she said.

"We just want the basic water. We want water. In this day and age, we shouldn't be asking for water."

Many First Nations remain without clean water

In a report tabled in February, federal Auditor General Karen Hogan said the government has not done enough to ensure people in First Nations communities have reliable access to safe drinking water.

In his 2015 campaign, Trudeau committed to eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 31, 2021.

Hogan found that while 100 advisories had been lifted, 60 remained in effect.

Likewise, a CBC News survey found more than a dozen First Nations communities face drinking water advisories for years to come.

It's not clear yet if the Lheidli T'enneh will join them, but for the moment they are still being told not to drink from their taps.

In the interim, members of the First Nation are purchasing and delivering five-gallon jugs of water to households on the reserve every two weeks, but Logan says not all residents are able to manage the heavy containers.

"We have an aging community and bottled water is heavy, so it's very frustrating," Logan said.

Gouchie said the situation has given her a new appreciation for how difficult life is for more remote reserves that have gone years and even decades without clean drinking water.

"It's a new way of living," she said. "It just seems so odd in this day and time."

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