Waabnoong Bemjiwang Association of First Nations, Water First & Rotary Partner to Address Water Challenges

Drinking water in some First Nation communities has been in crisis for years. Data shows there are approximately 150 drinking water advisories in place with 70 of them long-term. When contaminated water is consumed, people get very sick and is the cause of many life threatening serious illnesses.

After much research and discussion, a group of District 7080 and 7090 Rotary Clubs worked together and applied for a Global Grant to be hosted in Canada, with an International partner in Buffalo and were successful in raising $ 115,000 to assist in training interested Indigenous youth in clean water management.

The Rotary Club of Guelph, the Rotary Club of Peterborough and over 30 other Rotary Clubs in Ontario had been working on a Local Rotary Lager fundraising project. Wellington Breweries in Guelph produced an amazing lager and was a strong ally in supporting this project. As the local Rotary Lager was sold, 10 cents a can was set aside to support clean water projects in Ontario and those funds became essential seed money for a grant.

During this time, the Rotary Club of Guelph’s Indigenous Awareness Committee had been trying to find some meaningful way to assist in the clean water crisis. Rotarian interest in the water problems of some First Nations communities attracted the attention of several club members in 2018, when they attended a talk by a Univ. of Guelph water science researcher into the extensive and perennial problem of ‘Boil Water Advisories’ in largely underserviced Indigenous communities. With subsequent research it became apparent the relationship-building phase between our Rotary Clubs and Indigenous Communities will be a long-term project, especially given the geographical locations of the Indigenous communities. Yet it remained frustrating to see serious problems, such as water insecurity and resulting impoverished economies in our own province and, not be able to assist on a timely and meaningful way.

The Rotary Club of Guelph’s Indigenous Awareness Committee were looking for a partner to work alongside in relationship building with Indigenous communities and assist in improving water conditions. After hearing guest speaker Ami Gopal from Water First present on an internship program they have built on, it was determined they would be a great partner. Water First have been supported by many Rotary clubs independently.

Water First uses traditional knowledge through education and training of young Indigenous men and women who enroll in a 15 month paid internship usually in their home communities. Skills and hands-on training allow provincial accreditation in drinking water treatment and environmental water quality monitoring. Sustainability helps solve the water challenges facing many communities.

The Guelph club applied for a Global Grant towards Community Economic Development that would allow a relationship with Water First. Support was given by many clubs in Ontario, one in the US and an international club in Africa. Rotary International has awarded the grant. The partnerships begin.

On December 3rd Water First officially announced their partnership with The Waabnoong Bemjiwang Association of First Nations (WBAFN), a tribal council with six member First Nations in northern Ontario, to deliver a drinking water treatment and environmental water science internship program for young Indigenous adults. Approximately 12 interns will be recruited from six participating First Nations communities across the tribal council’s region to pursue Operator in Training (OIT) and Water Quality Analyst (WQA) certifications.
Water First, after facilitating the WBAFN approval, will assist in the intern selection process and manage the 15-month training program. In this partnership, our global grant money will be used to purchased necessary equipment and provide bursaries on behalf of the interns. The in classroom (zoom) teaching will begin in May 2021.

It is hoped and believed that this internship will have a profound impact on these Indigenous communities as their youth graduate and receive lifetime careers in their community. The water operators will serve as role models for all youth, as they observe the productive and stable jobs that can result from skills training. The project will ensure that some of the interns are young women, to address gender equity in a traditionally male job category. The health impacts of contaminated water will be reduced allowing understaffed Community Health Clinics to focus on other health issues. Access to safe water will allow families to practice normal hygiene, which has become crucially important in the control of communicable diseases like COVID-19. With a local supply of safe water assured, Tribal Councils will be able to (re)allocate funds which are currently being spent on purchase and transport of potable water to other priorities like education and economic development.