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Original article by Chris Marchand for the Dryden Observer.

A homegrown solution to chronic water quality problems in Ontario’s remote First Nations communities received a major vote of confidence from the federal government this past week.

Keewaytinook Okimakanak’s (KO) Safe Water Project received $4.148 million in funding from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) to expand its support to 14 new communities in Ontario’s north. The expansion will involve four new positions at Keewaytinook Okimakanak’s Centre of Excellence — housed in the Dryden Regional Training Centre.

The Safe Water Project builds on KO’s Water Treatment Plant Operator Certification program — providing 24 hour remote monitoring and support to water plant operators to find and address potential problems before they become boil water advisories. Already in place in six KO communities, the Safe Water Project has put an end to a number of long-standing boil water advisories and is on track to ending one advisory that has been in place for 15 years.

Attending a memorandum of understanding signing at KO’s Dryden training centre, Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett praised the Safe Water Project for its ‘bottom-up’ approach to cracking a tough problem that required not just funding, but innovation. Beyond water treatment, Bennett says support for homespun ideas that are proven to work for communities with unique challenges demonstrates an evolving approach for INAC as well.

Part of a five-year commitment from the federal government to address First Nations water quality, Bennett says the safe water project is important to INAC as a model that could be tweaked to work for other jurisdiction with similar problems.

“We’re interested in building institutions, not programs,” said Bennett. “The more our department can empower First Nations institutions to be self-determining on these kinds of things — that’s the key. Our department isn’t going to be the expert on these things and the more we can empower others to do this work as a true partner, the more we learn and the more we can empower other communities to look at this model and see if they find it appealing.”

KO Public Works Manager Barry Strachan says the crucial support and monitoring component of the Safe Water Project evolved naturally as newly certified water operators were found to be much more successful upon returning to work in their home communities if they had access to support and guidance from a centralized location that was also keeping tabs on each communities water quality through monitoring technology.

“The results were pretty dramatic and pretty fast of what we were able to achieve,” said Strachan. “Our colleagues in Sioux Lookout in the Windigo, Shibogama and Independent First Nations Alliance communities heard about our successes and asked how they could be a part of this. We worked together and jointly submitted a proposal to government in the spring. Luckily enough, we now have money to move forward.”

Fort Severn Chief Paul Burke says the Safe Water Project has had a positive impact in his community.

“This project has allowed our communities to take charge of their own drinking water and to build capacity for the future,” said Burke. “It is also helping to rebuild our people’s confidence in their water systems. We strongly believe the solution to water quality issues resides in First Nations communities themselves and that First nations are best placed to help each other address these issues.”