[Andre Forget] Ten more homes in the First Nations community of Pikangikum in Northern Ontario will have clean drinking water by the end of 2017 as a result of a joint effort by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), Habitat for Humanity Manitoba, and grassroots Anglican group Pimatsiwin Nipi.
The collaboration marks the second phase of a project PWRDF, the Anglican Church of Canada’s relief and development arm, and Pimatsiwin-Nipi (Oji-Cree for “Living Water”), a grassroots Anglican group, have been working to implement since 2011.
The first phase of the project involved the installation in 2014 of water tanks in 10 homes identified by the band council as being in serious need. At that time, 415 or 92% of homes in the community had no access to water or wastewater services, said PWRDF.
The tanks, which are serviced three times a week by a water truck, provide clean water and wastewater storage to households that previously had to draw their water manually from community cisterns.
The second phase of the project will provide larger water tanks housed on concrete pads built onto the next 10 houses.
“The need for clean and accessible water is really critical. Having clean water inside the house and not having to use an outhouse should be a given in Canada,” Will Postma, executive director of PWRDF, said in an email. “The water program is also important for relationship building, for reconciliation, for very practical action.”
In December 2016, Postma travelled to Pikangikum with Steve Krahn, vice president of regional development at Habitat for Humanity Manitoba, and PWRDF youth council members Asha Kerr-Wilson and Allie Colp, to meet with Chief Dean Owen and the Band Council and discuss the designs for the project. Owen also gave the group a tour of the existing facilities.
According to Krahn, Habitat was approached about the possibility of coming on as project manager in 2015. Krahn said there was initial uncertainty about whether this project would fit within Habitat’s mandate (most of their work involves the construction of new homes), but they were won over by the urgency of the need. “We’re really excited to be involved in it,” he said. “We see housing issues all the time, but to know that this extent of a housing issue exists in our backyard makes it hard to turn a blind eye to it.” Pikangikum Chief Dean Owen was unavailable for comment at press time. So far, five truckloads of building materials have been brought into the community via ice roads. Krahn said construction is set to begin early April.
Most residents of Pikangikum First Nation have no running water inside their homes and have to use an outhouse.
Phase two is slated for completion sometime before the end of 2017. Krahn noted, however, that the challenges of bringing the equipment and tradespeople up to Pikangikum made it hard to predict when the work would be completed. The project also includes training for five members of the Pikangikum community, paid for by Sioux Lookout Area Aboriginal Management Board. PWRDF and Pimatsiwin-Nipi have together raised 550,000 dollars for the Pikangikum project since 2013. A significant portion of this money came from the Advent Conspiracy, an international organization that facilitates charity giving during the Christmas season for clean water access around the world.
Heather Westbrook, one of the founding members of Pimatsiwin-Nipi and a member of Trinity Anglican Church in Aurora, Ontario, said the group grew out of a diocesan program called Ambassadors for Reconciliation. When the program came to an end, several participants began to wonder how they could continue doing reconciliation work. They decided on a project around access to water and water rights in Indigenous communities, and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald suggested launching it in Pikangikum. At that time, Pikangikum was drawing headlines for an epidemic of youth suicides.
“Really the focus on water came first, and then we left it to Bishop Mark to help us place where on the map that was going to happen,” Westbrook said. Westbrook’s own passion for water rights in Indigenous communities goes back more than 30 years, to a time when she was living with her schoolteacher husband on Berens River First Nation in Northern Manitoba.
During her three years there, she watched the community get access to clean water through the initiative of the chief at the time, who had water drums installed in the houses and brought a fire truck up to the reserve to refill them. “I saw the change in people’s lives—I was there to witness it, which I never forgot,” she said, noting that it removed a significant time burden from the members of the community, especially the women.
Though it is not yet clear whether there will be a third phase to the project, Postma said José Zarate, Canadian Indigenous Communities co-ordinator for the PWRDF, will continue to discuss the situation with Habitat and the Pikangikum chief and band council.