Thirty-six per cent of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation wells are contaminated with E. coli and total coliform bacteria, according to the community’s drinking-water manager.
Jordan Mullet delivered the news to a panel of federal drinking-water policy experts at the Westmark Whitehorse Hotel.
“Despite the community’s best efforts to clean and disinfect the water-distribution system, the problems persist,” Mullet said.
Many boil water advisories have been called by the First Nation’s chief Eddie Skookum.
The community needs a water-piping system, but no funding for this is forthcoming from either federal or territorial governments, said Mullet.
The panel listened attentively to Mullet’s presentation.
But there’s nothing it can do.
It’s not there to help the people of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.
In fact, they weren’t there to help any of the six Yukon and northern BC First Nations attending the hearing.
The Whitehorse hearing, the first in a series of cross-country consultations scheduled this summer, was ordered by Indian and Northern Affairs minister Jim Prentice.
The panel wants solutions to the ongoing water-quality crisis in First Nations communities.
Unfortunately Yukon First Nations fall outside the panel’s mandate as defined by Prentice.
“We are not supposed to be dealing with the people who are self-governing under their own legislation, which includes 11 of the 14 First Nations communities in the Yukon — and certainly includes Little Salmon/Carmacks,” said panel chair Harry Swain in an interview.
“The focus of the panel’s work is essentially on the classic reserves — there are about 580 of these remaining in Canada that do not have self-governing legislation,” said Swain, who is also director of the Canadian Institute for Climate Studies and a research associate at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies.
The three remaining non-self-governing Yukon First Nations do not have reserves in the classic sense, he said.
“In a narrow sense, one can say we didn’t even have to come to the Yukon at all.”
Nevertheless, as the chiefs described their drinking water woes, the panel scribbled notes.
There were a few common themes: lack of regulation; lack of funding; lack of training for water system staff; lack of regular maintenance or upgrading of water systems; lack of clarity regarding management responsibilities and a lack of protocol for declaring and acting upon public health emergencies.
“Our problems are real,” Skookum told the panel.
“We look at the capacity of the resources in the community and they are very inadequate when a real problem comes up.”
On June 20, the panel took a tour of the Carmacks drinking water system.
The community’s major hurdle is the low density of its inhabitants, said Swain.
“They have a proposal to put in a pipe-water system, which would doubtless improve the quality of water for a number
of individual wells in particular,” he said.
“The problem is the community is very sparse, and hence the cost of doing it would be quite high.
“The high cost gives them a battle with funding authorities. It’s a matter of cost and urgency.”
But what can the expert panel actually do about the dilemma?
“Strictly speaking, nothing,” said Swain.
It will use the information garnered from the Yukon to come up with water regulation options for the First Nation communities outside Yukon that fall under its mandate, he said.
One of the most interesting things is the Yukon government operates under a unified drinking water regulatory system for everyone who lives in the territory — native or non-native, according to Swain.
This is unique among all provinces and territories in the country, he said.
But the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation has not been given the support or the funds it needs to keep its system clean, said Mullet.
The Yukon government promised the First Nation $250,000 to design a small piped-water system, but this is dependent on the federal government pitching in as well, he said.
So far nothing is forthcoming from Ottawa.
“(Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) has warned that no funding source has been identified to see through implementation of the proposed solution,” said Mullet.
Recently Ottawa downgraded the First Nation from “high” to “medium risk,” without consulting it or providing reports to justify the decision, he said.
So, it was dropped from the federal list of 21 priority communities, two weeks before Prentice’s March announcement that such communities would receive extra assistance.
Since becoming self-governing, Yukon First Nations have received ample federal funds, but some have chosen not to spend the money on capital projects such as drinking water systems, said Swain.
“Some of the communities in the Yukon now spend less on capital than they did in the good old days and more on operations and direct assistance to people, and things like this,” he said.
“So they’re making their own decisions, their own allocations and then finding they’re short when it comes to some capital items.”
The panel must present an interim report to Prentice by the end of August.