by Frank Larue
Northern Waterworks Inc. (NWI) was established in 1997 as an aboriginal owned Water Authority.
“Due to our location in Northwestern Ontario, we saw first-hand the deplorable condition of water and wastewater treatment facilities. We therefore offered services to the remote northern communities in the vicinity, that lacked access to specialized trades and expertise. We were the Operating Authority of Municipal systems, so didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We merely duplicated the municipal box we had built, and assisted interested First Nations in implementing our programs. We attempted to eliminate the two tier system that was developing in Ontario. Post Walkerton, the Provincial Government adopted legislation and accreditation to ensure the safety of residents; meanwhile, the Federal Government hadn’t kept pace.
“Our relationship with the First Nation bands we have provided services to is excellent. As an aboriginal company, we understand and appreciate the process of community outreach. We engage both the community and leadership. It is a grass roots approach. Only through commitment from the operator, up through to Chief and Council, can any program achieve success. This has proven true time and time again. If we don’t have support of Chief and Council, we will typically not submit a tender bid. To do so would be to set the program up for failure. We have numerous First Nation programs rolled out in Ontario currently. Here is a snap shot of a couple programs currently being delivered by NWI. We provide 24/7 Technical Support and First Response Services to all Ontario First Nation Communities. Through this program of the Federal Government, we have responded to and mitigated more than 400-Emergency situations throughout the Province. We have provided this since 2011.
“We have provided Annual Performance Inspections, a mandatory risk assessment of the Federal Government for the past three years. This program has us perform on-site risk assessments, of all First Nation water and wastewater systems in Ontario. So we know first hand the true condition of First Nation systems. The main advantages are the relationships, and trust built, through 20-years of continuous service. Many organizations have a habit of attempting to enter the field, after Federal announcements of impending dollars being allocated to address the issue. We have a track record of service, and stability, backed by 20-years. Another advantage is knowledge of the systems. Through provision of services Province wide, we have first hand, on the ground experience with all systems in Ontario. When there is an emergency or critical failure, these files and experience are priceless.
“Remote, fly-in communities typically have no access to specialized trades. Further, a hardware store isn’t a block away with remote communities. Therefore access to required skilled trades, and supplies does not typically exist. We maintain a stacked warehouse full of parts, materials, and supplies for just that reason. We have the ability to be on-site within hours, complete with all required parts and supplies to mitigate and rectify. Common problems with communities throughout Ontario in general include a lack of local certified operators. Over the next three years, our goal is to assist in the development of a First Nation owned Water Authorities. We are working with a First Nation group to develop, from ground up, a Water Authority developed by First Nations, for First Nations. Over 20-years, we have dynamically developed and tuned our model, allowing us to duplicate a proven model.
“With Government policy ever changing, coupled with annual funding agreements, to take on the First Nation water crisis at its root is not sustainable. Skilled and Qualified operators are typically certified at Level 3 (Ontario: Operator-In-Training, Level I, Level II, Level III, Level IV). They have typically gained their experience through operation of municipal systems, and typically have 15+ years’ experience. This means they are some of the highest certified in the Province, have 15+ years’ experience, are near the top of their pay scale, and have significant time invested into a pension plan [almost all, if not all municipalities have pension plans and attractive benefit packages].
“Due to funding mechanisms of the Federal Government, funding agreements are typically annual, and must be renewed each year. It is near impossible to attract the qualified staff required, while offering the security of “one-year term contracts”. Rightfully so, these qualified personnel are just not willing to leave the security offered through municipal employment. NWI delivered the Circuit Rider Training Program (CRTP) for two years, throughout Ontario. This is a program of the Federal Government, standardized nationally, to provide technical assistance and ‘on-the-job-training’ or OJT, to First Nation communities throughout Canada. Annually, we had to give our trainers ‘lay-off notices’ while awaiting the Governments decision to fund CRTP another year or not. Of course, each annual cycle, we lost employees during this ‘wait and see’ period. Employees, which in many cases, took years to attract in the first place.
“While attending annual CRTP conferences, we have discussed this challenge with trainers from other provinces. It is not a challenge unique to NWI. Nationally, it appears as though almost all CRTP Service Providers are short qualified staff, with no additional capacity existing. So if capacity doesn’t exist for current programs, what will happen with the proposed implementation of new standards and regulations? We are scraping the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, as is. Something needs to change… Long story short, what I am trying to say is that the system, as currently established, is destined to fail. We have tried for 20-years to work within this box, and it just doesn’t work. We are transferring our knowledge and capacity to First Nation Authorities. We are developing, in partnership with various stake holders, First Nation Water Authorities to allow NWI to focus on stable, municipal opportunities, which typically provide the stable 5-10 year contracts, allowing us to attract and retain qualified staff. Unfortunately this is the only viable model at present, and is now the objective of our 3-5 year business plan. Significant changes may be occurring behind the scenes, but I have personally not seen a change or improvement. To the contrary, in many ways, we have seen risks increase over the past couple of years.”