Joint project targets Indigenous water crisis

July 20, 2018

Christopher Alcantara, Associate Professor in Political Science

Story by Adela Talbot/Photo by Paul Mayne

Chris Alcantara, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, knows it will take more than government funding to address the water crisis in Canada’s Indigenous communities. The money is important, sure. But building a collaborative relationship with Indigenous communities is what will build the foundation for future water infrastructure, he said.

“Water is a basic human right and it continues to be an intractable problem. Part of the problem is, the focus and the solutions people have been trying to propose, while important, have missed important components,” explained the Political Science professor.

“People always want the federal and provincial governments to provide money and regulations, and these are important things, for sure. We need to fix the facilities and get better technology. Again, this is important, but there are alternative things, too.”

One alternative is nurturing a collaborative relationship between First Nations communities and municipalities towards the goal of implementing water-sharing agreements. To this end, Alcantara, together with a team of researchers from University of Guelph, recently received $371,300 from the Insight Grants program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

The project comes out of a paper recently published by Guelph Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics professors Brady Deaton and Bethany Lipka in which the pair showed the presence of a water-sharing agreement between a municipality and a First Nations community had a positive effect on reducing the likelihood of boil water advisories. While the paper noted geographic distance between a First Nations community and a larger municipality greatly influenced the likelihood of an agreement being signed, they also found outliers – a number of communities with cities nearby that lacked collaboration and agreements.

Going forward, Deaton and Lipka will look at the determinants of cooperation on water-sharing from a large, statistical analysis while Alcantara and Sheri Longboat, a professor in Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, will look at a qualitative approach to determine why some communities are not cooperating with nearby municipalities.

“We are going to look at a number of communities that don’t have water-sharing agreements –the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida and Munsee, looking at the lack of agreements that they have with London, and two other pairings of communities in Ontario,” Alcantara said.

“We are going to talk to those communities, the neighbouring municipalities and ask them why there is no cooperation.”

In a typical water-sharing agreement, a municipality like the City of London would agree to provide water services, waste water and collection to a neighbouring community, in exchange for a fee. Instead of a First Nation community building all of the necessary infrastructure, they would instead tap into the municipal system and use their facilities, Alcantara explained. That fee is usually cost recovery and municipalities generally don’t profit from such an agreement.

Determining what an ideal collaborative relationship between a First Nations community and a neighbouring municipality looks like requires looking at other collaborative relationships that exist, Alcantara noted. He recently published A Quiet Evolution: The Emergence of Indigenous-Local Intergovernmental Partnerships in Canada, which examines the reasons for success of hundreds of partnerships and agreements between both groups in Quebec, Ontario and Yukon.

“Collaborative relationships can take many forms, like a service contract where the municipality provides a service, water, fire protection or garbage collection and disposal – for a fee, or it can be much deeper where the communities collaborate,” he said.

“We found agreements where they collaborated to jointly recruit a doctor to the area, or where they collaborated to build a skateboard park because First Nations youth wanted a park and wanted it inside the municipality; the communities collaborated, jointly built the park and they jointly manage it.”

Other agreements exist where a city and neighbouring First Nations community jointly manage a green space, Alcantara added. In Kingston, the city owns a park within the city but the space is jointly managed by neighbouring First Nations community because it is a piece of land that is culturally important to them. It’s not just about a contract, he said. Deeper collaborations exist.

The water-sharing collaboration project is funded for five years but Alcantara knows it will take longer to establish solid footing.

“When you work with Indigenous communities, you have to build these relationships and they take time. Sheri is taking the lead on building relationships with First Nations communities and I will be working with the municipalities. We have already started working with the Chippewas of the Thames informally on some things; hopefully that will be the first case and will give us something to produce,” he said.

“Small communities don’t have to have the headache of running a water system. Why not tap into the water systems of municipalities? They have the infrastructure. They have the expertise, the engineers, the administrators. Why not tap into that?”

Part of the reluctance, he explained, is some Indigenous communities feel strongly about self-governance and sovereignty and want to fully express that. A water agreement may be a good short-term solution while these communities build better capacity to better assert their autonomy in the future.

Building relationships between politicians and civil servants is also important, Alcantara said. Personal relationships have an effect on the emergence of collaborative partnerships, too.

“There’s room for citizens. As members of London, if we can build relationships with just regular citizens in the Chippewas of the Thames, that can also have an effect. Fostering relationships between civil society and organizations and leaders, inviting elders to your school to talk or offering to visit community groups of the Chippewas – when citizens of the two communities not involved in politics connect, we found that can also have a positive effect on encouraging politicians to think more carefully about these kinds of relationships,” he explained.

“It’s about not imposing your own view. When it comes to something like building pipelines, you never go into a community and say, ‘Hey we want to build a pipeline, what do you need?’ Go visit the community first. Don’t talk about the pipeline at all. Just come visit, learn and talk and once you get your relationship built to a certain point of trust, then you can start talking about these other types of things. The same logic applies at this level between First Nations and municipalities.”

The Liberal government has vowed to reach their goal of eliminating all long-term boil-water advisories on public systems on reserve by 2021.