ONEIDA NATION OF THE THAMES—Jennifer George’s home sits on a gravel road that separates this Indigenous community near London, Ont., from the neighbouring Township of Southwold.
On George’s side of the road, virtually no one trusts the drinking water that flows from the Thames River to their homes. Many have the same 18-litre blue jugs that line the floor of George’s kitchen, ubiquitous sources of water for drinking and cooking.
The water distribution system on Oneida territory — operated by the community with regulatory oversight from Indigenous Services Canada — has failed to meet provincial standards dating back to 2006, according to a Toronto Star/Ryerson School of Journalism investigation, as part of a national collaboration of nine universities and 10 media outlets, including Concordia University’s Institute of Investigative Journalism.
Further, 18 years of water quality testing across Oneida First Nation sometimes shows striking levels of dangerous pathogens such as E.coli flowing from residential taps. Upstream, the nearby city of London dumps millions of litres of raw sewage into the Thames River that serves as the community’s water source.
Yet Onedia has received none of the federal government’s high-profile funding for bringing safe, clean drinking water to Indigenous communities.
“When it comes to my kids drinking the water, I’m afraid,” says George, a 55-year-old with eight grandchildren. “I’ve got brand-new babies in this world and I shudder at the legacy that we’re leaving for them.”
On the other side of the gravel road, the township of Southwold draws its water from Lake Erie and is fed by a treatment system that received a $176-million upgrade last year.
That system stops right at Oneida’s borders, right by George’s home.
“All Canadians should be really concerned that there’s this division of systems between the haves and the have-nots,” says Charles de Lannoy, a chemical engineering professor at McMaster University who works with First Nations in southern Ontario. “Between the First Nations communities, who are our neighbours and share this land with us, and everyone else.”
As a child, George would spend her days learning the tedious process of washing Indian corn with tap water inside the modest grey house where she has lived most of her life.
But she hasn’t drank or cooked with water from her tap for more than 15 years and won’t even use it on her vegetable garden without using a homemade charcoal filter.
It made her sick, she says. She couldn’t keep food down.
Widespread concerns about troubled water on Oneida, an Iroquois First Nation with more than 2,200 residents, had merit all along, new evidence suggests.
In September, Neegan Burnside, an engineering consulting firm hired by the Oneida First Nation, urged the leadership to issue a boil water advisory because the community’s water distribution infrastructure has failed to meet standards for 13 years, the firm concluded.
Oneida Chief Jessica Hill and her council quickly ordered the advisory. “I give my biggest beef here to all the municipalities around us that received money to bring up their water systems after Walkerton (tainted water scandal) to meet renewed standards,” said Hill, who stopped drinking from her water tap in 2002.
“We are still sitting here … with pre-Walkerton standards. What does that tell you? That tells you that we don’t have access to equal services. It’s really plain to see. We are living in one of the wealthiest parts of Canada, the Golden Horseshoe … but we can’t do anything about it.”
Officials with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the federal agency responsible for overseeing water quality on First Nations, say that a historical review of Oneida’s water, “shows no concern of contamination” and that there has been “no increased rate of water-borne illness.”
While there are “sporadic hits” of coliform and E.coli bacteria at Oneida, the department’s data shows “no demonstrated problems,” said Shaun Mackie, an Ontario regional manager with ISC.
The federal regulator has heard complaints from those in the community, he said, including distrust of the water, but based on test results, “it doesn’t appear that it’s impacting health,” said Mackie.
But ISC officials support Oneida’s boil water advisory, saying they take the concerns raised by the engineering report “very seriously” and that they are working with the community to “determine how best to improve the water treatment infrastructure in order to meet the required standards.”
Hill says the ISC response is mixed messaging that has confused many in the community.
“They come to the community and say everything is fine and, meanwhile, the engineering company is saying we should issue a (boil water advisory). There are two different things happening.”
Ronald Hofmann, a professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, reviewed the data and documents obtained by reporters.
“Based on the information provided, this should not be normal nor acceptable for any community in Canada, Indigenous or otherwise,” he said. “I would not drink that water. I would not want my family drinking that water. It’s too much of a risk.”
“The reality is, there are different rules because it’s First Nations going back hundreds of years of history, but one would hope that intelligent people would make sure the drinking water quality meets the same standards as neighbouring, non-native communities regardless of the details of treaty laws.”
Signs of trouble with Oneida’s water treatment plant date back years.
In 2011, consulting engineering firm Neegan Burnside, in a report for the federal government on drinking water quality in First Nation and Indigenous communities, noted that Oneida failed guidelines in four categories, including health, esthetics and design.
Seven years later, Neegan Burnside wrote another report for Oneida.
“The existing treatment system does not meet the federal protocol/provincial regulations,” it reads.
The filtration system at Oneida’s treatment plant needs 94 minutes of contact time between the raw water and chlorine to remove pathogens. It gets just 1.6 minutes, the report found.
Overall, the treatment system was awarded scores of zero out of three for removing cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes gastrointestinal illnesses and is potentially life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems, and giardia, a parasite that causes the diarrheal illness known as giardiasis. And it scored zero out of four for removing viruses.
“That’s pretty shocking,” said McMaster’s de Lannoy. “If this engineering report was done properly that’s a pretty blatant indication that there’s not appropriate chlorine treatment for disinfection of these micro-organisms.”
U of T’s Hofmann, who also reviewed the report, said: “In my estimation, this report was serious enough that actions should have been taken. It’s disturbing to me that it’s gone on apparently for a number of years in this community where the consultants did point out the water’s treatment is substandard according to the rest of Canada and nothing got done about it.”
Two weeks after his interview, Hofmann wrote to reporters that he “thought about it a lot while I was on vacation … still kind of reeling with what I learned about the lack of proper oversight and/or training being given to these communities in Ontario. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Thirteen per cent of water samples taken at taps at Oneida over nearly two decades show elevated E. coli counts, according to a Star data analysis.
Federal and provincial water standards state that no E. coli can be detectable in drinking water. But some years — especially between 2006 and 2009 — E.coli exceedances were rampant in annual tests of Oneida water, ranging from a third to nearly all, the data shows.
More recent testing shows much lower levels but occasional exceedances remain.
“I’m surprised at how high the numbers are,” said de Lannoy. “Those years (2006 to 2009) are really serious concerns and occasional occurrences of E. coli are still a concern … It’s really shocking. Given the history of this treatment plant, I’d be suspect of the quality of this water.”
Chief Hill says she wasn’t aware.
“I was told there were problems but I don’t think that we understood the depth of what that really meant because we had no confirming evidence,” said Hill. “Our infrastructure is just too old … All we can do is monitor. We cannot remediate.”
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Ronald Elijah, Oneida’s public works manager, has known about the risks for a long time.
“If anything got in our river … if E. coli got in there, we can’t treat it, or cryptosporidium gets in there we can’t clean it,” said Elijah. “It’s in there. It’s straight to the tap.
“I’ve been screaming we need this plant fixed right away. It’s major … it’s bad. We’re just lucky that nothing has happened.”
The federal Liberals committed $1.8 billion in 2016 to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nation communities by March 2021, which has grown to $2.1 billion.
Since 2016, that funding has helped to successfully end 87 long-term drinking water advisories nationally. Another 57 remain in place.
Most of that money has gone to desperate communities concentrated in remote northern areas that lack basic infrastructure to provide clean, reliable drinking water and have been on long-term drinking water advisories.
“It’s true that a lot of the projects that are funded are long-term drinking water advisory,” said Chad Westmacott, director general of ISC’s community infrastructure branch. “But it doesn’t mean we are only able to and only willing to fund long-term drinking water advisory projects.”
Oneida and dozens of Indigenous communities like it with serious water problems are not remote — it sits about 30 minutes outside London — and have not been on long-term boil water advisories despite chronic water quality issues for decades.
To date, Oneida has received none of the $10.89 million it requires for its water treatment facilities to reach provincial standards, based on an estimate by the Ontario First Nation Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC), an advisory service that works with the federal government.
ISC officials confirm that, since 2016, Oneida has received “over $1 million” in standard operations and maintenance funding for water and wastewater as it always has along with other First Nations. No new investments have been directed from the $2-billion federal fund to address water infrastructure.
In a written statement, ISC said the department has been working with the community to “advance a water feasibility study to validate steps needed to bring the water treatment system up to provincial standards and to confirm the associated costs.”
Water quality is only part of the dichotomy between water in First Nations and settler communities.
In July, much of southern Ontario was preparing for a heat wave that pushed thermometers past 40 C with the humidex.
Oneida administration issued a conservation advisory due to “extreme weather conditions” straining the water system to the point that “adequate supply for emergencies (was) jeopardized.” Residents were told to limit showers to five minutes, only washing dishes once a day and “avoid filling swimming pools,” among other measures. On the same day, Strathroy-Caradoc, a town less than 20 kilometres away, announced operating hours for swimming pools were extended to 9 p.m. and splash pads to 10 p.m.
There were 509 short-term boil water advisories and “do-not-consume” advisories in 92 Ontario First Nations between January 2012 to February 2019, according to ISC statistics.
Prior to the current water advisory that began Sept. 26, there have been 10 short-term boil water advisories in Oneida between 2001 and April 2019, according to data provided by the community.
In Oneida, advisories are not met with much fanfare; many in the community say they don’t even notice them. Contrast this with what happens 30 kilometres south in Glencoe, a similar-sized town where a water main break led to a boil water advisory in July 2018. Fire trucks drove through the streets, announcing the advisory. The town leveraged the incident to receive more money from the provincial government to fix its water mains and prevent future advisories.
It would cost $782 million –– roughly a third of the money committed by the federal government –– to bring water systems of 104 First Nations up to Ontario standards, according to Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation.
All told, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated the minimum it would cost to get water and wastewater in Indigenous communities up to standards in line with the rest of Canada would cost a minimum of $3.2 billion and could cost more than $4.7 billion.
In a written response to questions, ISC said it “concurred” with much of the PBO report, adding that more than $1.24 billion in funds have been invested in water and wastewater-related infrastructure projects as of June 30.
Craig Baker, an engineer with First Nations Engineering Services Ltd., says the situation with water on First Nations communities has been the same for years, regardless of what political party has been in power.
“Indigenous Services Canada really doesn’t want to know what the real numbers are –– it’s never been in their interests,” he says. “It was nice the prime minister promised the elimination of all boil water advisories, but the thing that just galls me is every time we kick one advisory out, we have another one coming on. They have failed, it’s definite.”
“If we invoke the Ontario regulations for all the First Nations here … we’ll probably double the number of boil-water advisories overnight,” Baker says. “This whole idea that the federal government’s going to knock down all the boil-water advisories in Canada within five years, they aren’t going to hit that either.”
The Thames River, which replenishes Oneida’s aquifer, is a dumping ground for waste, raw sewage and pollution. To avoid basement flooding during heavy rains, London’s wastewater system dumps rain water and raw sewage into the river. In 2018, 266 million litres of raw sewage was released and flowed downstream through several First Nations communities, including Oneida.
So far this year, more than 5.7 million litres of London’s raw, untreated sewage — including commercial and industrial waste — has been dumped into the river, according to city data.
London didn’t start notifying Oneida of sewage dumps until mid-2018, say Oneida leaders, including Chief Hill. Even then, Oneida is only notified after the dump has occurred, sometimes hours or days later.
As a little girl, George would help her father find wells to drill for drinking water. He would give her two sticks and, she says, she would feel dizzy, which told her there was water underfoot.
In Oneida tradition, as with many Indigenous cultures, women are responsible for the protection and well-being of water, the basis of all life and healing. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously.
“It’s in my heart,” she said.
George takes pride in the strawberry bushes in her backyard as they attract wild turkeys and deer. Water is used for traditional medicine and healing and in sweat lodges; for cooking corn soup and making strawberry drinks; and to bathe newborn babies. Often, she opts for water that comes from outside the community for these ceremonies.
When George is told that the water from the Simply Pure bottles in her kitchen comes from the same source as her neighbour’s tap water across the street, she is silent. Tears well up in her eyes as she stares at the blue bottle she drinks from. After a moment, she compliments its taste.
With the assistance of the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University