Providing clean water to Atlantic Canada’s First Nations communities

At a glance

The team

Mitacs Accelerate interns at Dalhousie University and Cape Breton University; Dr. Megan Fuller, research associate from CWRS; supervisor Dr. Graham Gagnon (Dalhousie University); and Atlantic First Nations Water Authority.

The challenge

The lack of systemic support for self-determination for First Nations communities to manage and control their own drinking water and wastewater services to ensure safe and clean water for all their relations.

The solution

By bringing Indigenous knowledge and Western science practices together, the project aims to identify gaps and shortcomings in the supply of clean drinking water and clean wastewater.

The outcome

The research filled critical gaps by establishing benchmarks for water quality which didn’t previously exist since First Nations water systems are unregulated.

Atlantic First Nations Water Authority and Dalhousie University researchers are using ‘two eyed seeing’ — an approach that combines Indigenous knowledge and western science to ensure safe drinking water and clean wastewater for Indigenous communities.

In Canada, many First Nations communities do not have access to clean drinking water. Currently, 28 long-term drinking water advisories are in effect in communities across the country.

To address this long-standing issue, Chiefs in the Atlantic Region formed the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority (AFNWA), first-of-its-kind Indigenous water utility formed to serve communities across the Wabanaki territory. Mitacs interns at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Water Resources Studies (CWRS) are providing vital technical support for the AFNWA as it grows through its first years of operation.

AFNWA, in partnership with Mitacs, is building a trusted talent pool that respects Indigenous knowledge, culture, and values as a part of its mission to provide participating communities with safe drinking water and clean wastewater.

Providing clean water standards

The CWRS has been a long-time supporter and technical consultant to the AFNWA, assisting in the creation of the first water quality compliance standards to be applied to a First Nations water system in Canada.

Under the supervision of Dr. Graham Gagnon, Director, CWRS, and research associate Dr. Megan Fuller, Mitacs interns conducted water quality assessments, analyzed samples in the lab, gathered data and communicated their findings back to the AFNWA. Their work helped to fill a critical gap by establishing benchmarks for water quality and a regulatory framework that did not exist previously because unlike other public utilities, First Nations water systems are unregulated.

“The students established the foundation we needed to hit the ground running with water quality monitoring programs in place on day one,” said Carl Yates, who recently retired from the role of AFNWA CEO and worked closely with the project team. “For the first time, we can actually see how we are doing in terms of quality benchmarking, and it’s truly making a difference in the lives of the people we serve.”

The work done by the Mitacs interns since April 2023, when the program began, is already seeing benefits. AFNWA was able to identify one community where the chlorine concentration contact time — which is necessary to ensure proper disinfection — was not adequate and immediately issued a boil water advisory. They are now in the process of designing a solution to solve the problem.

“In the past, that response would have been as slow as molasses and communities would have had to work through a prolonged federal process to get things done,” Yates explained. “For the first time in Canada’s history, we’re providing a proactive approach to ensure safe drinking water for First Nations communities, including the development of safety plans that identify risks from the water shed all the way to the taps of users and back to the source again.”

Combining Indigenous knowledge with Western science practices

AFNWA is guided by the principle of ‘two-eyed seeing’, which is an Indigenous concept that combines Indigenous ways of knowing and Western science to more fully understand the world and our place in it. Using both Indigenous ways of knowing and modern engineering methods, Mitacs Accelerate internships allowed students to complete water quality sampling in the first 11 communities on-boarded by AFNWA.

“This project showed me how incredibly valuable and important it is to work with more than just a Western science lens,” said Toni Stanhope, a recent Dalhousie University graduate with a Masters of Applied Science in Environmental Engineering and one of four student interns in the project. “An Elder with the AFNWA’s Elder Advisory Lodge taught me he sees the river as a relation, and this guides his relationship with the water. This has helped me treat water more holistically and with more care.”

“When water comes in from the river for drinking water, for example, you understand it needs to be cared for in a respectful way to protect it for future generations to come,” she explained. “Then, when it’s returned as treated wastewater, you want to make sure you’re not harming the receiving environment, which may mean monitoring for additional water quality parameters rather than just meeting the baseline requirements.”

CWRS and AFNW’s continued partnership

The ongoing partnership between CWRS and AFNW will continue, as they begin to investigate alternatives to chlorine disinfection, such as cutting-edge LED-based UV light disinfection methods.

Dr. Megan Fuller of CWRS credits the Mitacs program for providing an agile and responsive talent pool that provided them with expert help as soon as they needed it to support the AFNWA and called the opportunity to train future engineers and scientists with a focus on Indigenous ways “a huge benefit.”

“We’ve just recently begun thinking about ecosystem services as a Western culture, but Indigenous peoples have had this figured out for thousands of years,” she added. “The creation of the AFNWA is absolutely unprecedented. Everyone is looking for a solution to First Nations water security and they are paving the way forward.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.


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