Undervalued and uncertified, but these workers carry a heavy load

Walkerton. Kashechewan. North Battleford. These Canadian place names are beacons warning of the danger of tainted drinking water.

Walkerton. Kashechewan. North Battleford.

These Canadian place names are beacons warning of the danger of tainted drinking water.

Crises like Walkerton, where e-coli contamination killed seven and made more than 2,000 people ill, changed everything, said Kevin Rumsey, Indian and Northern Affairs water strategy officer for the Yukon region.

“Ever since then there’s been a large effort put into upgrades, training and certification all across North America.”

Tainted water crises have touched the Yukon.

Last year, gross alpha radiation contamination was found in well water in the small Yukon community of Champagne.

But cases like Champagne are rare.

Contamination rarely comes from the water source. Usually, it’s introduced along the way as the water is transported from the source to the tap, said Rumsey.

Pathogens like bacteria and e-coli are introduced in the equipment like piping used to extract the water, or in the truck used to transport the water.

And more often than not, the contamination is caused by human error, said Rumsey.

“Somewhere along the line, once it’s exposed to human management, that’s where pathogens can be introduced into the system,” he said.

Currently there is no legislation ensuring the certification of water-truck drivers or water-pump operators in the territory.

But a national policy for all Canadian First Nations states there must be a certified operator matched to each water system.

“It’s one thing to have the policy, it’s another thing to implement it,” said Rumsey.

There are three First Nation water systems that do not have certified operators in the Yukon region.

Systems in Fort Good Hope, Atlin and Ross River are running without licensed operators.

But reps from each community attended training and certification workshops in Whitehorse last week to earn the documentation, said Rumsey.

Over the week, groups of water-truck drivers and water-system managers from First Nation communities in the Yukon and BC gathered to learn basic management skills in water handling, testing and treatment.

“Most of the job is pre-done, we just make sure the system is running safe,” said Ray Carlick, a water delivery operator from Atlin who attended the course.

Carlick was not certified, but hoped to pass the test at the end of the day.

In some smaller communities, like Atlin, the people who drive the truck are also responsible for ensuring the water has been tested and treated.

Carlick’s job is a kind of balancing act. He must ensure the drinking water is chlorinated enough to kill any unwanted pathogens, but not too chlorinated to make it undrinkable.

“These water-system workers are tremendously undervalued in their communities,” said Rumsey.

“But they have a tremendous responsibility to deliver safe drinking water.”

If something goes wrong the results could be disastrous, he said.

In the Yukon region, Indian and Northern Affairs oversees water systems for 17 First Nations — 14 in the territory and three in northern British Columbia in Atlin, Fort Good Hope and Lower Post.

They run on small-water systems, which are meant to service less than 500 people.

Of the 17, two are hooked into municipal water systems run by the territorial government.

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation are connected to the systems in Old Crow and Dawson City respectively.

Although some Kwanlin Dun First Nation members are hooked into the Whitehorse water system, those who are on truck delivery are the responsibility of Indian and Northern Affairs.

“Train them and we can lower the risk of contamination,” said Rumsey.

The operators must pass an exam to get certified.

It will take three weeks to tell whether they passed the exam.

Some of the guys won’t make it, said Rumsey while standing in the training room at the Westmark Whitehorse last Wednesday.

They don’t have the basic math skills to pass the test.

“These operators come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“Some have not finished high school, some quit early for many, many reasons and we find it all across Canada that their ability to do basic math skills is really challenged,” said Rumsey.

So Indian and Northern Affairs has also developed a video-conferencing math program run from Yukon College that teaches basic math skills in the communities.

It’s a math course that’s been built specifically for water operators focusing on volumetric skills, said Rumsey.

Currently eight operators are enrolled.

The program is part of Ottawa’s Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nations Communities.

The five-year $600-million national program is now in its final year.

Under it, the number of certified water-treatment system operators has increased from eight per cent in 2003 to 37 per cent as of March 2007 nationally.

The Yukon gets $1.2 million per year to implement its portion of the plan.

Training and certification has been going on for the past four years.

So far more than 40 First Nation participants have become certified through the program.

“That’s all nice,” said Rumsey. “But the challenge is that they don’t stay in the community.”

With the economy on the upswing and more lucrative jobs opening in mining exploration, it’s hard to keep certified trained workers in the communities, said Rumsey.

Currently the Yukon region has 16 primary operators and numerous back-up operators.

Two staffers travel around the Yukon training and trouble shooting local water systems.