Marten Falls First Nation waits for new water system as Ottawa spends millions on bottled water


Ottawa sends $2M in bottled water to First Nation

Marten Falls First Nation, a remote reserve that's been under a boil-water advisory since 2005, relies on water bottles flown in by the government.

The band manager for Marten Falls First Nation says the growing community is in need of new water-treatment plant.


The band manager for Marten Falls First Nation says the growing community is in need of new water-treatment plant.

By:  Ottawa Bureau reporter, Published on Sat Feb 14 2015

OTTAWA-The Conservative government has spent at least $2 million flying bottled water to a small aboriginal community in northern Ontario that has been without its own source of drinkable water for a decade.

"All of our landfill is filled with plastic bottles," Linda Moonias, the band manager of Marten Falls First Nation, a fly-in reserve about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., said in a telephone interview Friday.

"It's totally ludicrous," said Bruce Achneepineskum, the interim chief of the reserve near the proposed Ring of Fire mining development.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has been reimbursing Marten Falls for the cost of sending bottled water from Thunder Bay by airplane since Health Canada issued a boil-water advisory for the remote community of about 335 people on July 18, 2005.

The department provided $2.13 million to Marten Falls to buy and transport bottled water between the fiscal years 2005-06 and 2013-14, according to a September response to an order paper question by NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay).

Health Canada recommends a daily ration of 1.5 litres per adult and one litre per child, according to that response. A letter one of its officials sent to Marten Falls last May advised the band administration to provide mothers with extra bottled water to bathe their babies, who are at risk of becoming sick if they ingest bacteria from the unsafe tap water.

That ration formula does not take into account the teachers, nurses and consultants who live in the community for months at a time, who also need water and therefore further stretch the supply, Moonias said.

Marten Falls has to pay for the bottled water and its transportation up front, Moonias said, which can cost up to $40,000 a month, and reimbursement happens slowly.

"We haven't seen a penny of the bottled-water expenses for this whole fiscal year (ending March 31)," said Moonias.

"That affects our cash flow in terms of keeping our programs running and then we are constantly shifting this around and that around, sometimes just to keep our basic programming running."

Aboriginal Affairs spokeswoman Michelle Perron said in an emailed response to questions on Friday that the department has authorized up to $344,000 for fiscal 2014-15 and is "working with (Marten Falls) to obtain the information necessary for reimbursement."

"We live in a country like Canada," Moonias said. "Why are First Nations having to struggle to even get clean drinking water?"

Things got worse last April, when the filter at the water treatment plant, which community leaders say the population has outgrown since it was built in 1997, developed a crack and caused the water to become unsuitable even for bathing.

Moonias said Aboriginal Affairs would not pay to replace the filter and so the community patched it up themselves.

Moonias said they found someone willing to supply a new filter for about $15,000, but need to wait for the winter road to open at the end of February to bring it in from Thunder Bay.

"First Nations are owners of their water and waste water systems and are responsible for their daily operation and management," department spokeswoman Perron wrote in an emailed statement Friday. "The Government of Canada provides funding and advice to First Nations in the design, construction, operation and management of their water and waste water services."

Perron said Aboriginal Affairs had just paid $45,089 to replace the same filter the previous year and advised Marten Falls to use some of the $221,700 it provides in infrastructure funding to repair it.

She also said the federal government is providing Marten Falls with $304,857 to operate and maintain its water and waste-water systems in 2014-2015.

Moonias said the outdated system is already eating up more of that money than it should.

"We are constantly making repairs to a system that is already not reliable to provide clean water to the community. We are constantly fixing something," she said.

Aaron Wesley, the operations and maintenance technician for nearby Matawa First Nation, which acts in an advisory role to Marten Falls, said the current water-filtration system is outdated and cannot handle the volume required by the growing community.

He said the chemical used to reduce the discoloration and turbidity of the water is added too soon before it reaches the filter.

"There is no time for it to work," said Wesley, explaining the sludgelike substance that forms during a process called flocculation and coagulation, which is needed to help remove particles from the water, ends up forming in the wells, when it is too late to be filtered out.

"It's always a danger, because that's not potable drinking water," he said.

Marten Falls may get a new water-treatment plant. Perron said the federal government has committed itself to funding the design of a new water-treatment plant over two years and received a design application request from Marten Falls on Jan. 12.

"We are currently reviewing (it)," Perron said.