Southern Chiefs' Organization testing project aims to improve First Nations water quality

·3 min read

Since 2019, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization’s (SCO) Water Testing project has focused on developing a robust regional water database through testing in their 34 First Nation communities in southern Manitoba.

When it comes to water quality and access, First Nations have become the most vulnerable population in Canada due to generations of displacement from their lands, poor infrastructure, and systemic neglect.

The SCO allied with the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective to address this issue by writing grant proposals where they would train youth, under a paid internship, to properly sample and examine water test results.

“In a team of three people, two interns and manager, the general role was to contact communities and organize days to go sample water wherever the communities deemed fit,” said Carson Robinson, SCO Water Testing Intern on Thursday.

“We tested everywhere from households, community centres, and health centres – of course abiding by social distancing rules and sanitization protocols. After samples were submitted and the results returned, with the training of Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective, we examined the quantity of bacteria and chemical in the water of Southern First Nations.”

Results in the database will be used to inform the decision-making process in regards to water quality and its usage in their region.

The harmful nutrient has increased in the water due to First Nations not having full information on water quality, in addition to the exclusion from the decision-making process.

When nutrients exceed a certain level, water quality problems can occur, including unhealthy drinking water, algae bloom growth, reduced oxygen, and toxicity that is harmful to aquatic life.

SCO’s team have tested for dissolved oxygen, e-coli, total coliform bacteria, phosphorus levels, and total metal content in the water.

Currently, 25 of the 34 SCO-member communities had their water tested by two SCO First Nation students during the summer. Given the opportunity, Robinson hopes to be able to reach all 34 communities in the future.

“First Nations communities need and deserve better. I implore any colonial political figure, a provincial minister and federal minister to go out to these communities and have a glass of tap water from a household with a holding tank, or any tap for that matter,” said Robinson.

“If you wouldn’t drink that water, or even bathe in some cases, then why should these communities? What I’ve come to learn is that, with our governments, revenue and profit reign supreme over basic human needs. No action has been done to prove otherwise.”

The water database is owned and operated by the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples, respecting the principles of Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) and First Nations Protocols.

The project’s end-goal is to improve the quality of First Nation water sources by informing leaders, strengthening partnerships, and promoting collaborative water governance in the region.

“We are currently working with the government to create an independent water authority. It has been a two-year process to get to where we are, similarly to what you get in the water infrastructure authority developed in the east coast, we are working on a similar development in southern Manitoba,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.

Vic Savino, SCO’s Communications Officer, noted that a Water Summit is planned for the 2020/21 fiscal year.

Nicole Wong is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Nicole Wong, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun