Water Security – Tin Roof Global

A Creemore charity works to ensure clean water security for First Nation communities

June 20, 2016 | | Back Issues

More Than a Drop in the Bucket

The air in the Grade 5 classroom at Erin Public School is filled with waving arms. Visiting clean water advocate Katie Vander Wielen has just asked the 24 enthusiastic students how they used water that morning.

Washing. Cooking. Drinking. Brushing teeth. Vander Wielen records the children’s answers on the chalkboard. Then she turns and poses a new question to the group: Do they know there are communities in Canada without clean water?

This time, not one hand goes up.

It’s a hands-on experience for Grade 5 students at Erin Public School as Katie Vander Wielen instructs them about where water comes from, how to use less of it and what can be done to keep it clean. Photo by Kristi Green.

It’s a hands-on experience for Grade 5 students at Erin Public School as Katie Vander Wielen instructs them about where water comes from, how to use less of it and what can be done to keep it clean. Photo by Kristi Green.

Vander Wielen is the busy education co-ordinator for Tin Roof Global, a Creemore-based organization whose mission is to provide and protect water through education. Vander Wielen and the Tin Roof team give more than 200 interactive workshops a year at eight school boards across Ontario. With 80 of those sessions under her personal belt this year alone, Vander Wielen is a pro at using hands-on methods to teach young people where water comes from, how to use less of it and what can be done to keep it clean.

Temagami First Nation students take turns examining zooplankton under a microscope. Students collected the sample from Lake Temagami at the dock in front of their school. Courtesy Tin Roof Global.

Temagami First Nation students take turns examining zooplankton under a microscope. Students collected the sample from Lake Temagami at the dock in front of their school. Courtesy Tin Roof Global.

Vander Wielen goes on to explain to the Erin students what it’s like to live on one of the 20 per cent of Canadian First Nation reserves where water must be boiled before it is safe to drink. Just three short hours from where these students are sitting, for example, is Shawanaga First Nation, where wells and toilets routinely run dry. Since 2007, “Band-Aid trucks” have been shipping water from Parry Sound to the reserve.

Unfortunately Shawanaga’s story is not unique. Water may be a necessity of life, but access to clean water is still a luxury on many reserves. Last year, CBC reported that two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada had experienced at least one drinking-water advisory some time in the previous decade, the most common being the recommendation to boil water before using it. Water advisories are put in place for a variety of reasons, from poor pipe connections and low pressure to improper filtration and disinfection, as well as bacterial contamination. At Neskantaga First Nation in the northern reaches of this province, residents have been boiling their water for more than 20 years.

Why? There is no easy answer. The problems are various and complex, ranging from underfunded water systems to procedural issues. Some communities simply don’t have enough water to meet the needs of the population or there is a shortage of trained personnel to run treatment facilities. Though reasons for the clean water crisis can be murky, Tin Roof founder and executive director John Millar says the solution is more clear. He believes the key to improving the situation lies in understanding water science.

“It’s a knowledge issue. First Nation communities need people to understand water and operate treatment systems,” he explains. “Virtually all First Nation reserves have treatment plants, but 20 per cent of them aren’t working. It comes down to a question of education and training.”

That’s where Tin Roof steps in. Named for its first projects in Uganda, the organization started out replacing the old, leaking and rusty tin roofs on school buildings with new tin roofs that directed clean rainwater to large cisterns where it could be stored. This meant students could spend their days learning in the classroom instead of making repeated trips to a well.

Since its beginnings, Tin Roof has maintained a focus on education. In Africa Tin Roof representatives gave workshops about hygiene and sanitation. Now Millar is bringing the clean water message home.

“After starting Tin Roof to address a Ugandan issue, I began to be asked about water in this country,” he says. “People pointed out that you don’t have to travel all the way to Uganda to find a water crisis, you can just drive up the 400.” Millar knew that if Tin Roof could provide training and education to people in another country, it could do the same in Canada.

So a couple of years ago he started a pilot project to deal with issues specific to First Nation reserves. The new program, called Water First, was developed to generate interest in water science. It integrates traditional knowledge, promotes community engagement and ensures projects are led by the people who live on the reserve.

In the three years since Water First began, it has expanded to 17 First Nation communities. Today 90 per cent of Tin Roof’s work focuses on water on reserves. And come this fall, while continuing some work in Uganda, Tin Roof will change its name to Water First to reflect its new direction.

This Shawanaga First Nation student is working with a groundwater hydrology model that shows how water levels rise and fall as water in an aquifer is depleted. Courtesy Tin Roof Global.

This Shawanaga First Nation student is working with a groundwater hydrology model that shows how water levels rise and fall as water in an aquifer is depleted. Courtesy Tin Roof Global.

These days Millar and other Tin Roof staffers travel regularly to and from reserves in Ontario, offering curriculum-based workshops to all grade levels, taking students out onto lakes to learn water-testing techniques and providing professional training to community members. They teach residents how to biopsy a fish to test its mercury levels and how to use instruments like a sonde, which measures water quality. To attract high school students, Tin Roof ups the cool factor with teaching tools such as a helicopter drone for studying watersheds.

The goal of the program is long term: to increase local knowledge and interest in water science for the future. Tin Roof wants to inspire young people to pursue training programs and to give them guidance when choosing high school courses. The organization is committed to nurturing the community link by hiring and training local water science technicians and high school graduates to work on projects.

According to Millar, kids can’t get involved too soon. From his office in the heart of Creemore, he fields anxious calls from reserves across the country. He recalls one woman who contacted him because her father, the community’s only water treatment plant operator, was about to retire – and there was no one to replace him.

“The young people are the future,” says Millar. “First Nation youth are dramatically underrepresented in the sciences, which is another important part of the issue. By increasing the understanding of water in First Nation communities, we can help them become interested to learn more and develop the skills they’ll need in the future.”

Because every First Nation community is different, Water First is customized to address local needs. Take Temagami First Nation, for instance. The reserve is located on Bear Island in Lake Temagami, where the water is clean and clear – and members of this First Nation want to keep it that way.

John Millar (left) and Dan Mongrain check a map to decide the best place to take water samples from Lake Temagami. Bear Island in the background is home to Temagami First Nation. Courtesy Tin Roof Global.

John Millar (left) and Dan Mongrain check a map to decide the best place to take water samples from Lake Temagami. Bear Island in the background is home to Temagami First Nation. Courtesy Tin Roof Global.

So when the Tin Roof team comes to visit, they train people to provide a contemporary snapshot of the water quality in the First Nation’s traditional lands.

Dan Mongrain, an Algonquin Anishinaabe who lives on the reserve, has been providing local guidance to the Tin Roof team while training with them as an environmental technician. He helps the team gather important benchmark data, including water and fish samples, and carry out other work, including restoring walleye habitat, which will contribute to the health of the local environment.

“Our resources are disappearing faster than most people realize,” says Mongrain. “Our water is pure now, but it’s not necessarily always going to stay clean.”

Mongrain’s work with Tin Roof has inspired his ambition to enrol in a four-year water waste management program at Nipissing University. Both he and Millar believe the baseline information they are gathering will help reserve residents continue to monitor the quality of their water for years, thus helping to protect the community against the effects of pollutants in the future.

“There are longer-term implications to having this data, which First Nations see as a protective shield for their communities,” says Millar. “If they get a scientifically valid snapshot of the water quality now, they can do a similar study five, 10 or 20 years down the road, and they will have rock-solid data to compare against and address any concerns with.”

Clean water is for the thirsty, but it’s also a requirement for communities to thrive. In addition to health risks, the lack of safe water can lead to psychological stress and decreased morale. Tin Roof staff members teach local populations how to study water, and unlike other programs, give the community full ownership of the data they collect.

The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation hosts an oil pipeline on its land near Brantford. Currently the pipeline’s owner, Enbridge, tests the water and reports the data to the band council. But with more water education and training, the band council will be able to increase its autonomy by conducting its own measurements.

“It’s about more than just drinking, it’s about community independence and sustainability,” says Millar. “Increased knowledge about water science can lead to communities that are healthier and more independent. You can’t have autonomy or a good quality of life if you don’t have your own safe, clean drinking water.”

Last year Millar gained an audience with Bob Rae, who praised the efforts of Water First at a conference for the Canadian Water Network. Tin Roof’s work is funded through donations and corporate sponsors such as Mountain Equipment Co-op and the Royal Bank of Canada. The registered charity recently received a $90,000 grant to develop its work in Temagami, and the federal government has also kicked in the funding needed to hire a full-time water treatment engineer.

Millar plans to expand his youth-based education program to more First Nation communities in Ontario, before reaching out to reserves in other provinces. Though the progress is encouraging, Millar remains realistic: “It provides stability for the organization, but it’s a drop in the bucket for what needs to be done to tackle the problem.”

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call for a renewed relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples ringing across the country, Millar is more hopeful about the future. The government has committed to ending boil-water advisories on First Nation reserves within five years, and finance minister Bill Morneau recently allocated $2 billion toward achieving this goal.

But Millar believes investing in infrastructure will solve only part of the problem. “If the physical infrastructure is addressed, but training for current and future First Nation operators isn’t, then the systems will just break down again,” he says. “Significantly increasing water training and education opportunities for First Nation participants will be an integral part of any successful long-term solution to boil-water advisories. Increased training leads to the successful operation and maintenance of water treatment infrastructure, while the status quo clearly leads to boil-water advisories.”

Meanwhile, back at Erin PS, Vander Wielen is wowing students with water facts. In her right hand she holds a common one-litre kitchen pitcher, filled to brimming. Then, to the children’s amazement, she reveals that, on average, every Canadian uses the equivalent of 251 such pitchers-full of water each day.

To Vander Wielen, water education is essential. She says people are always shocked by how much water Canadians use. “For some of us, easy access to clean water can allow us to forget how precious a resource it actually is,” she says. And though the Erin students are a knowledgeable bunch who use words like “aquifer” and know the chemical name for NaCl, she says she has also met kids who believe water simply comes from the tap.

Centuries ago Leonardo da Vinci said water is the driving force of all nature. In this century the United Nations declared access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water and sanitation underlies all human rights. Through education and hands-on support Tin Roof is helping make that fundamental right a practical reality for all people in Ontario.

About the Author More by Kristi Green

Kristi Green is a freelance writer who lives in Mulmur.

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