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First Nations need more than a band-aid solution

Posted on: December 1, 2014 6:57 PM
Shawn Atleo, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, visits one of the homes in Pikangikum that received a new water system
Photo Credit: Bob White
Related Categories: Canada, indigenous

By André Forget, Anglican Journal

Grassroots Anglican group Pimatisiwin Nipi (Oji-Cree for “Living Water”) has been working in conjunction with other concerned partners such as the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the Pikangikum First Nation Working Group (PFNWG), Frontier Foundations and the Pikangikum First Nation itself to provide water to the community of roughly 450 households, 430 of which lack indoor plumbing.

The households that received new facilities had been ascertained by the band council as being in serious need. Most people in the community have to get their water from central outdoor distribution points served by a water treatment facility.

While many First Nations communities living on reserve struggle with similar problems, Pikangikum has become metonymic for the dismal standard of living many indigenous Canadians experience. The community of over 2,400 people, the majority of them under age 25, has been plagued by an extraordinarily high suicide rate: between 2001 to 2009, there were 58 suicides and 481 attempted suicides, according to an Ontario coroner’s report in 2011. In 2000, the British sociologist Colin Samson, an expert in First Nations communities in Canada, declared Pikangikum to have the highest suicide rate in the world.

The project began back in 2011 when then-deputy chief coroner Dr. Bert Lauwers, who had been sent to Pikangikum to investigate the suicides of 16 young people between 2006 to 2008, called for the creation of a group of volunteers to work in solidarity with the Pikangikum First Nation to develop long-term solutions to the community’s problems.

Bob White—a Catholic member of the Toronto Area Interfaith Council and Toronto Urban Native Ministry and management consultant for sustainable development consulting firm BRI International—became involved, and in consultation with Pikangikum created PFNWG.

The group decided the best way to contend with the despair and frustration felt by many of the young people would to be address some of the underlying infrastructure issues that have made life in the community difficult, and the band council noted that water was one of the key needs.

At the same time, the group that would become Pimatisiwin Nipi was forming in southern Ontario around the question of water as a spiritual issue. They approached National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who was also involved with PFNWG, to ask how they could help indigenous communities struggling to secure adequate water facilities, and he put them in touch with Bob White and PFNWG. At this point, PWRDF was also brought on to manage the project.

With the support of many individual Anglicans and parishes across the country, Pimatisiwin Nipi were able to raise around $100,000 toward the project through the Advent Conspiracy, a grassroots ecumenical initiative that encourages Christians to spend less money on presents at Christmas and more time with family and then donate the money saved to projects that help those in need.

When the Journal contacted Bob White, he explained that the original plan was to have the federal government match the money raised. However, despite the fact that providing water resources to First Nations reserves is a federal responsibility, and the fact that PWRDF and PFNWG were implementing a system that would allow them to provide water for a fraction of the price that government quotes had suggested, the government backed out. “They said that they didn’t have enough money at the time,” White recalls.

Fortunately, the Frontier Foundation, a charitable development company based in Toronto, stepped in to fill the gap. Together, all the partners were able to provide clean water and waste water facilities to 10 households, at a cost of roughly $20,000 a house.

The federal government said it would cost around $80 million (roughly $200,000 per unit) to install a comprehensive system that would pipe water from the treatment plant to every home in the community, said White. PFNWG and PWRDF were able to undercut this per-unit cost by using a system in which homes are given individual water tanks that are serviced weekly by a water truck.

Attempts were made by the Journal to contact both the band council of Pikangikum First Nation and the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, but neither was able to respond with a comment by press time.

But while water is now being provided successfully to 10 homes, hundreds are still going without, and MacDonald was quick to point out that this is not something that Anglicans and other members of civil society should have to do in the first place. “We are very concerned about getting our government to honour its commitments and responsibilities in terms of providing clean water to Canadian communities—especially indigenous communities,” he said. “We are providing emergency help to a community that has requested it. Our urgency in asking the government is even more important.”

Carolyn Vanderlip, director of PWRDF’s Canadian Anglican Partnership Program, underscored the project’s limitations. “It’s not just water, it’s housing, it’s schools. It’s just a lack of concern [on behalf of the government] for what’s happening in these communities…outfitting 10 homes with water does not solve the problem…”

For that reason, Pimatisiwin Nipi is getting involved in advocacy as well, lobbying for the government to live up to its responsibilities rather than simply trying to raise funds for “a band-aid solution.”

The Rev. Martha Tatarnic, who serves at St. George’s Anglican Church in the diocese of Niagara and has been involved with the initiative from the beginning, said that the advocacy aspect of the work will be especially important in the context of next year’s federal election. “We’ve written letters to our MPs, and we’re hoping to get in touch with them following the election to let them know that this is a priority for us.”

For their part, Pimitasiwin Nipi will continue to raise funds for water relief in Pikangikum