First Nation's water imperils economy, health and maybe even pregnancies

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First Nation's water imperils economy, health and maybe even pregnancies

SLATE FALLS, Ont. - Like many remote First Nations, Slate Falls is surrounded by abundant, sparkling blue water that it can't seem to drink or pump sufficiently into its houses.

The water defines this northwestern Ontario community. It gives the First Nation its name, it determines the design of the neighbourhoods, and it lends solace to the community's 200 inhabitants.

But the lack of proper water infrastructure also has a pervasive effect on the band's economy, its health and everyday living conditions on the reserve just north of Sioux Lookout.

Slate Falls is one of the more than 300 First Nations in Canada with a water system that has been deemed high risk, according to a ground-breaking national assessment published last year.

The band leaders are frustrated because they can't expand or set up more buildings to deal with a growing population. The water intake pipes are just too small to accommodate more structures.

"I believe we have lots of potential in this community, if we had better infrastructure," says Kathy Loon, a band official lugging around a thick stack of reports about water quality.

Residents are frustrated because they have to hike down to the reverse osmosis water treatment centre to fill up their jugs — a tough task for people like 82-year-old Dinah Loon, Kathy Loon's mother.

The elderly woman lives in a tiny house with another daughter and her family, crowded together into two bedrooms since the band can't build any more houses.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of Slate Falls' water problems is the effect the band's leaders believe it is having on pregnant women.

Miscarriages have soared in the past five years. Chief Lorraine Crane says an informal count shows 25, although she says many are not reported. Health officials suggest that about 40 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage — double the national average believed to be about 20 per cent.

The kindergarten and junior kindergarten classes have just a handful of kids in each class — unlike other First Nations where the classrooms are overflowing.

The band's leaders can't be sure that the drinking water is directly linked to the rate of miscarriage. They point to studies that suggest a link between miscarriage and trihalomethanes — a byproduct of chemicals used to purify water.

There are other possibilities, however. Diabetes, high blood pressure and the widespread abuse of prescription drugs could also be to blame.

"One of the things that we have as a First Nation is that we've lost a lot of unborn babies. Very high. We can't say it's this or that. But we did see a study that came out about water, something in the water," says Crane.

"I don't have any proof but I do know that it is not normal."

The band's houses are all on the edge of the lake, and serviced by one of 11 pump houses. All of the pump houses are considered high risk, and none of the tea-coloured water is drinkable.

Officials at Aboriginal Affairs say they are working with the First Nation and regional authorities to make sure the local pump house operators follow the right procedures.

By the band office, a small reverse osmosis station gives the band its drinking water — although many residents say they often drink from the tap.

Armed with analyses, Crane figures she needs a $3.5-million investment to bring the community's water up to scratch.

Ottawa, however, is focused on legislation rather than funding these days. After almost five years of trying, a First Nations clean water bill is working its way through the legislative process, establishing regulations and defining authorities for improving water systems on reserves.

The bill does not come with funding attached, and will require extensive consultations with provincial authorities. Government officials say funding may come later, after the regulations are written and First Nations begin to phase them in.

The national assessment pegged funding needs at $4.9 billion over five years. But the federal government says that by 2014, it will have invested $3 billion in water and waste water systems on reserves, which will go a long way towards addressing the problems set out in the assessment.

As far as Kathy Loon is concerned, the legislation means very little for her community, for her mother trying to arrange for people to haul water for her every day, or for her friends losing their babies.

"It's one stall tactic after another."

Organizations: First Nations, Aboriginal Affairs

Geographic location: Northwestern Ontario, Sioux Lookout, Canada Ottawa

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