Filter room in water treatment plant. Photo: SBA

By: Mike Anderson

Despite significant upgrades to the water treatment plant on Georgina Island, which were completed in December 2019, the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation (CGIFN) remains under a boil water advisory that was first issued in April 2014.

Councillor Benson Big Canoe said CGIFN is prepared to lift the advisory, but only if the First Nation receives additional funding from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to extend the water main to the island’s east side, which remains unserviced.

“The First Nation isn’t comfortable lifting the boil water advisory until all our members have access to that water,” said Coun. Big Canoe, who manages infrastructure projects for CGIFN.

While the plant upgrades, which cost $7 million, provide more than 200 band members, who live mainly on the southwest and north end of the island, access to safe drinking water, the east part of the island still gets its drinking water from lake lines.

Coun. Big Canoe said this affects over 30 members in about 10 to 15 households.

But he adds the lack of clean, safe tap water is also impeding future development on that side of the island.

More than 500 members are living off-reserve, and he said some of them might want to return.

“When we designed the water plant, we designed it for 20 years. We didn’t just design it for today; we designed it for future growth,” Coun. Big Canoe said.

“We might have more residents, more households built. There’s a lot of people who own land but aren’t at the right time in their lives to build. And then some people own land that don’t live on reserve that might want to move back and have the opportunity to build too.”

While ISC recently approved $1.4 million in funding for repairs to the existing water distribution system, Coun. Big Canoe said an additional $5 to $6 million would be needed to extend the water main 5 km to service the east side.

In an email to The Post, a spokesperson for ISC said that the department is reviewing the First Nation’s funding application. However, no deadline for a decision was provided.

This concerns Coun. Big Canoe because any further delay may mean the project is not tendered this year.

“We were trying to shoot for construction this year, but that timeline seems a little bit farfetched because you need to tender these things in April or May,” he said.

“We’re trying to expedite the process by possibly doing the design. The band will cover the cost as long as we get a funding agreement that ISC will reimburse those costs.”

Still, Coun. Big Canoe is confident that the project will be approved.

“We have a really good working relationship with the folks from ISC that we’ve been working with. Things could be faster, but anywhere in government, things could be faster.”

“They are just as adamant about getting us off the boil water advisory as we are.”

CGIFN’s boil water advisory is one of 54 active advisories on First Nations reserves, including 44 in Ontario, impacting 26 communities.

While the Liberal government initially said it would have all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nation reserves lifted by March 2021, it has been unable to make good on that promise.

However, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recently pledged $3.5 billion to lift the remaining advisories by the end of 2021.

Minister Miller’s renewed commitment follows a critical Auditor General of Canada report, released in February 2021, that said the federal government was not doing enough to ensure First Nations had access to safe driving water.

“Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don’t believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada in 2021,” Auditor General Karen Hogan said.

In a statement emailed to The Post, York-Simcoe MP Scot Davidson said, “it is unacceptable that large portions of the island remain under a boil water advisory.”

Mr. Davidson said he has raised the need for additional funding with Minister Miller and will continue to do so in the coming weeks.

“As the Member of Parliament for York-Simcoe, I will continue to push the federal government to fund the projects needed to finally end the boil water advisory on Georgina Island,” he said.

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