The Modern Treaty Era


Chapter 20 Infrastructure on ReservesSummary: In this Chapter we consider the inherent difficulty of funding public goods such as infrastructure. We note that, in many Indigenous communities, lack of regulation, lack of expertise, the participation of multiple actors each with limited responsibility, and the smallness of scale of projects reduce the quality and affordability of infrastructure projects. Again, regional management should be helpful.

Infrastructure is physical capital that provides services which are shared across the community. Infrastructure includes water filtration plants, sewage systems, electricity grids, cell phone towers, roads, and much more.

Infrastructure goods are  public goods: goods which can be shared without detriment to any one person, and from which people are typically not excluded. There is a classic “public goods problem” familiar to students of economics. The problem is called free riding.  People try to ride free on public goods. They are not willing to pay their fair share and they tend to understate their willingness to pay.  That is why public television stations and public radio stations ask viewers and listeners to contribute but end up relying on grants from governments and charitable foundations.

Because of the public goods problem, it’s up to government to make sure there is enough infrastructure in the community. Prior to the 1970s, Indian Agents supervised much of what went on in reserves, and Band governments were not entrusted with much responsibility.

A sign warns of water problems on part of the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation in Alberta, in early 2016. Photo: Ryan Girard, Alberta Venture, March 2016. [131]
A sign warns of water problems on part of the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation in Alberta, in early 2016. Photo: Ryan Girard, Alberta Venture, March 2016. [131]

The inadequacy of infrastructure on reserves during that time period is largely the responsibility of the federal government and the voters who elected each administration. Since that time, Bands have been given back some self-government rights, and funding from the federal government has increased.

Unfortunately, responsibility over infrastructure expanded faster than Bands’ capacity to provide and manage infrastructure.

Infrastructure on reserves remains deficient, especially on northern reserves.  An index compiled by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards shows the significantly lower levels of infrastructure in remote northern communities, especially for Inuit and First Nations communities.

The special challenges facing remote communities are discussed in Chapter 29. To consider the difficulties inherent in funding infrastructure on reserves, both northerly and southerly, let us explore the particular case of water systems.

Infrastructure Indexes for Remote Communities by Heritage Group 2019
Infrastructure Index for Remote Communities by Heritage Group. Data Source: Johnston and Sharpe, (2019).[132]

Water Systems on Reserve:

Despite Canada’s status as the country with the most fresh water in the world, over 25% of reserves have substandard water or sewage systems.[1] Faulty water systems, necessitating advisories to either boil the water or avoid using it, have plagued First Nation reserves for years and have appeared in newspaper headlines time and again. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged in his 2015 election campaign to end long-term drinking water advisories by March 2021.  Two years after he was elected, Trudeau’s government had funded 27 water system upgrades or replacements at an average cost of over 26 million dollars each, but 67 systems either remained broken or had become broken in the meantime. Trudeau had added water systems used by First Nation fire halls and community centers to the government’s to-do list, adding to the challenge.

The Auditor General of Canada analyzed federal spending on water systems in her 2021 report. She noted that, despite increased spending on water systems, federal support was insufficient. She noted that the federal government’s own assessment of the riskiness of water systems on reserve did not improve between 2014-5 and 2019-20.

The Parliamentary Budget Office (2017b) has estimated that it would cost 3.2 billion to build or repair all the needed water and sewage infrastructure on reserves, and 361 million annually for operations and maintenance.

Check the various water advisory websites to find out if there is a water advisory in a community near you.
Serpent River First Nation is a community of 350 people on the north shore of Lake Huron.   Prior to 2015, the community used four wells, each with a pumping station. The amount pumped was not sufficient for fire safety or for population growth, plus the quality monitoring system was not up to provincial drinking-water standards. In 2015, Ontario Clean Water Agency managed a project to upgrade the community’s water.  Richards & Associates Ltd. were the consulting engineers. Two different technologies were tested over two months. The community chose the membrane technology supplied by Membrane Specialists.  Indigenous Affairs paid $12.4 million for the new water treatment plant.  Not long after the plant opened, tests indicated that the water was not safe to drink. The chlorine was reacting with dissolved organic matter, producing carcinogenic trihalomethanes at twice the maximum allowable level.  The membranes weren’t doing a good job screening out the organics because the water was too acidic for the membranes.  The two months of testing hadn’t captured the full range of seasonal variation in water acidity.   The project team has been trying different, more acid-tolerant membranes, imported from Poland, but these membranes let water through more slowly, especially as the temperature drops, and are only expected to last five years, half as long as the original membranes. It is now estimated that $1 million more will need to be spent to pre-treat the source water. As of Feb 2017, the water treatment plant was running 24-hour days to supply non-drinking water uses but the community needs even more.  Recently, a pipe ruptured in the basement of a vacant house, draining a huge amount of water. Water is being trucked in from Sudbury.
Serpent River (DSD_7558). Photo Credits to: Greying_Geezer
Serpent River (DSD_7558). Photo Credits to: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) [133]

Suggested Activity: Instructors, assign your students to do some research on the history of water quality at Serpent River. A number of revelations await.
The Globe and Mail began a report on failed water systems in summer 2016, obtaining Indigenous and Northern Affairs’ records and interviewing engineers, project managers, and First Nations leaders. They filed a request under the Access to Information Act to get Indigenous Affairs’ Integrated Capital Management System database, which includes risk assessments for completed projects, plus a 2015 study done for Indigenous Affairs by Orbis Risk Consulting.

On the basis of this information, Matthew McClearn wrote several Globe and Mail articles, and Dean Beeby wrote another. They identified three major problems: lack of regulation, fragmented decision-making, and lack of expertise.

  1. Lack of regulation

Provincial regulations do not apply to reserves.  Indigenous Affairs’ regulations are less stringent than provincial regulations.  Modern municipal systems are built to provide 450 litres per resident per day, but many First Nation systems provide only 180 litres. But even if stricter regulations were imposed, there is still the matter of being able to achieve the standards in the regulations.

Graham (2018) originally supported the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which was passed in 2013 to establish water quality guidelines at the federal level, since reserves are not obliged to meet provincial requirements. However, he now understands why First Nations were opposed:  the Act does not give First Nations any power to make rules, and it does little to lessen the burden of developing, maintaining and operating the water systems.

As of early 2021, no new regulations around safe drinking water had been formulated under this Act.

  1. Fragmented Decision-Making
  • Indigenous Services – decides whether to fund a project and roughly how much money to provide
  • First Nation – decides on design
  • First Nation – decides on a construction company.  Construction company works with another firm’s design.
  • Indigenous Services – decides when to release the funds
  • First Nation – responsible for operations and maintenance.  Operators work with what the construction company has completed.


If INAC were responsible for construction, it might send approval and funds more quickly.

If INAC were responsible for service delivery, it might provide funds for more rigorous testing prior to design. 

If the designer were responsible for construction, the design might be more practical.  Most municipalities are now using the same firm to design and construct.  

If the construction company were responsible for operating the plant for several years, it might take more care with the construction.

  1. Lack of Expertise

Most First Nation communities on reserve do not have members who can knowledgeably compare engineering proposals.  Most reserves do not have or cannot attract skilled and experienced water systems operators. Most of Indigenous Affairs’ engineers do not have much training or experience with water systems.

Even water system specialist engineers have failed to anticipate some of the complications in remote northern communities, such as permafrost, very cold ambient temperatures, acidic water, and very high dissolved organic matter content.

In addition to the three problems identified by the Globe and Mail, which we just examined, there are others:

  1. Piecemeal Approach

Another problem is that a project will be funded but the components needed in conjunction with it are not. So a water treatment plant may be built, but not the pipes taking water to the houses. Or houses may get hookups, but no wastewater removal or sewage pipes.  Money for the water treatment plant is released, but not the money needed for operation.[2]

Meanwhile, the money which is released is typically only 80% of what is required for either construction or operations. It can be a struggle for Bands to come up with the remaining 20%.

According to the Auditor General of Canada (2021), the government uses a formula created in 1987, updated for inflation, to determine how much it pays for operations. Spending has depended on this formula, rather than on achieving goals and meeting quality standards. As a result of underfunding, in 2018 water systems operators on reserve earned 30% less than operators elsewhere.

Many rural communities rely on each house having its own well for drinking, bathing, and cleaning, and its own septic tank or septic bed for wastewater and sewage. The federal government does not fund private wells and septic on reserve; it only funds systems used by five or more households.

  1. Size and Scale

On the matter of community size, Graham (2018) has questioned the ability of small communities to properly operate sophisticated systems, sharing the conclusion of the American Environmental Protection Agency that a minimum of 10,000 users is required for a viable system.

After the aforementioned Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act was passed, the Atlantic Policy Congress, representing 30 Chiefs in the Maritimes, Quebec, and Maine, worked with the federal government to propose a regional water authority serving more than fifteen First Nations.  In such an authority, Graham sees a way out of the current problems with water delivery.

A regional water authority for First Nations

  • would take on the responsibility of providing quality drinking water, relieving Chiefs and Councils of legal liability
  • could offer a more attractive employment package to qualified operators
  • could operate multiple systems remotely to reduce costs per litre
  • could be responsible for developing and installing new facilities, gaining experience and expertise along the way

Graham has proposed that this water authority be subject to laws developed by a First Nation Environmental Protection Agency. This agency, not yet in existence, could evolve to handle other matters as well, such as solid waste disposal. First Nations could decide whether or not to come under the auspices of this agency.

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority, the first Indigenous-owned-and-operated water authority in Canada, is slated to begin operations in the spring of 2022.

We have now discussed in depth the issue of water on reserves. The problems confounding water infrastructure generalize to other infrastructure such as electricity and internet. The solutions will likely generalize as well.

Next, we turn to the challenge of providing residential housing in non-urban Indigenous communities.

  1. United Nations General Assembly, (2019).
  2. Comments of Dawn Martin-Hill interviewed on TVO The Agenda July 24, 2019