A First Nation in northwestern Ontario that had been under a boil-water advisory for 14 years now has clean water with the opening of a new treatment plant.
Slate Falls, about 550 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., celebrated the opening of the plant on Tuesday.
“Very important,” Slate Falls Chief Lorraine Crane said of the new facility, which will serve the community of about 300 residents. “[It means] better care, better health, clean water for our children and also for the elders.”
For the past 20 years, homes and other buildings got their water from a series of pump houses, according to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations in Ontario, including Slate Falls. None of those facilities was able to provide clean water from 2004 onward, NAN officials said.
That system, which took water from a nearby lake, and ran it through a filter and briefly through a chlorination system, lacked the capacity to properly rid the water of E. coli and other contaminants. The new plant effectively brings the community’s water system up to modern standards.
“It’s hard. We had to boil water for drinking,” Crane said of how the community has lived for nearly 15 years. “Many people actually bought their water.”
She said relying on bottled water for everyday use was expensive.
The federal government pledged $11.6 million for the treatment plant project in 2016, after more than a decade of efforts by community leadership in Slate Falls to secure funding. The lack of clean water has hampered plans to build more homes to help with overcrowding.
“I feel incredibly happy to be able to see this absolutely beautiful facility and to be here, to see the pride the community has and realize how long it’s been since they’ve been able to turn on the taps in this community and drink the water,” Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said at Tuesday’s opening.
There are still 81 long-term boil-water advisories in First Nations communities in Canada.
Philpott’s office pointed out that doesn’t mean 81 individual communities are affected, as some have multiple advisories in place. Prior to the new treatment plant opening, Slate Falls had 11.
The federal government has pledged to end all such advisories by March 2021, a commitment that Philpott said Ottawa continues to stand by.
“We are firm in our plan to make sure every long-term water advisory for public systems like this will be lifted,” she said. “We have a detailed plan in place for every remaining long-term advisory that’s there.”
Philpott said the recently announced 2018 budget will “speed some of them up a little bit and get the work done faster.”
The budget promises an additional $172.6 million over three years — beginning in 2018-19 — for projects to ensure First Nations have clean drinking water.
Not only will Slate Falls’s new plant provide clean water, it also includes firefighting infrastructure such as water pumps and hydrants, according to Nishnawbe Aski Nation. A lack of dependable access to water and firefighting equipment has been blamed for a number of fatal fires in Indigenous communities.