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While safe drinking water in Canada’s First Nations communities remains a national concern, City of Nanaimo CUPE Local 401 water crews have modeled part of the solution through an innovative mentoring program with the Snuneymuxw First Nation (SFN). The Nanaimo program began in November involving SFN workers job shadowing CUPE 401 members to learn foundational skills in maintaining a quality public water system.

“We’re working to assist SFN employees become familiar with the hands on day-to-day work involved in a municipality’s regular water distribution maintenance programs including emergency repairs and the installation various components,” said CUPE Local 401 President Blaine Gurrie and member of the Vancouver Island Water Watch Coalition.  “Our goal now is build on our success here and use these principals to expand the mentoring program out to First Nations communities across Vancouver Island.”

Expanding the program would help end the argument First Nations Communities do not have the expertise to manage water distribution systems because of lack of skilled labour. Gurrie wants future agreements between First Nations’ councils, CUPE, regional district authorities, municipalities and improvement districts which control water supply areas to provide a positive public solution that would ensure safe drinking water for all Island residents.

“With this model, First Nations communities can supply safe clean water in areas where they have been given the responsibility, but no other assistance from government other than funding,” said Gurrie. “We have proven by example this expertise can be imparted to manage public water systems, without the need for a private partner.”

In 2010, the Federal Government announced the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (now referred to a Bill S-8) to create health and safety standards, but no mention of training support needed to live up to them.

Shortly following the introduction of the legislation, CUPE and the Council of Canadians released a report Public Water For Sale: How Canada Will Privatize Our Public Water Systems warning of the potential impacts of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that would allow European water utilities such as Suez and Veolia to challenge local water conservation as well as bottled water bans as unfair barriers to trade. The report noted: “The private sector will have the ability to enter First Nations as owners and operators of water and wastewater facilities due to lack of infrastructure, resources and training within First Nations.”

CETA and Bill S-8 combined could prevent First Nations from building, owning and operating their own water and wastewater plants,” added Gurrie. “By not delivering the education to make their legislation work the Federal government is opening the door wider to further water privatization.”

The City of Nanaimo is one of a growing list of municipalities to pass the Blue Communities initiative from which the SFN mentoring program is one tangible project based on the principle that water is a human right.