BIRCH ISLAND—Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) ushered in the start of 50 years of clean water security at a community ceremony to commission its newly-completed elevated water storage reservoir on December 17.
“This is a powerful community and we’ve made some powerful changes,” said WRFN Ogimaa Shining Turtle.
The day’s events began with a welcome from Ogimaa Shining Turtle and address from master of ceremonies Gail Pelletier. Wyatt Bell and Mathew Oshkabewisens performed a welcome song, then Carmen Pitawanakwat led a water ceremony. As she circled the reservoir’s base, Mr. Bell and Mr. Oshkabewisens performed a water song.
Ogimaa Shining Turtle then invited councillors, special guests and children from Shawanosowe School to gather inside the reservoir’s entrance. Former Ogimaakwe and current councillor Leona Nahwegahbow had the honour of holding the giant blue-handled scissors.
With a plethora of cameras at the ready, she clicked the shears closed around the blue ribbon and it fell away, officially commissioning the new reservoir to cheers and applause. The gathered procession then moved to the community centre for a community feast and speeches. Ogimaa Shining Turtle was first to speak.
“Today’s theme is that water is life,” he said. “It tells us to take a much deeper look at ourselves. It shapes who we are. It’s our identity.”
He acknowledged the massive undertaking that went into bringing the water tower project to fruition.
“This upgrade you’re seeing is the culmination of an immense amount of work, much of which you don’t see. It’s the quiet work of the council and administration that has made today a success,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle.
Ogimaa Shining Turtle told the attendees that 1972 marked the first time that Birch Island used a mechanical system for water with the completion of its pump house on Red Eagle Road. Before then, the community relied on shallow wells and lake water to survive. Ogimaa Shining Turtle said the task of hauling water home after school helped him to understand the sanctity of water.
WRFN built its water treatment plant, standpipe water tower and a trunk water main in 1997. It had an estimated lifespan of 20 years. The decades-old water intake point in the lake, originally installed in 1972, required replacement in 2002. By that time, the lake level had dropped by one metre.
Starting in 2003, the chief and band council started a quiet campaign for upgrading its water system. WRFN was growing at a faster pace and would need upgrades to ensure it remained able to handle its own needs.
The existing water treatment plant received a retrofit in 2006. This improved its operations but it was already operating at its maximum capacity, meaning a more permanent solution was still needed.
One year later, in 2007, the new Shawanosowe School opened. This was significant because its sprinkler system required a stronger constant water pressure and more water volume than the standpipe was able to provide.
In 2010, the new water treatment plant was finished. A 2016 study found that the next step in upgrading the water infrastructure would be the construction of an elevated storage reservoir to replace the antiquated standpipe design.
It took three engineering studies by three engineering firms before all the details of the new reservoir were finalized. Monday’s ceremony was the realization of $3.5 million in project costs and 10 months of construction, something Ogimaa Shining Turtle called “record time.”
“We can see this as a glowing reminder of who we are, of the great strength of our community,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle.
The new reservoir holds 1,280,675 litres of water, approximately six times more capacity than its standpipe predecessor. It reaches 46 metres above the ground-level elevation of 222.5 metres; the standpipe only reached 32.5 metres. The water will remain above 260.7 metres at its lowest point, or 38.2 metres above the ground. This minimum level is in place to ensure enough pressure for firefighting.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Regional Director Anne Scotton addressed the room, saying the project had turned out “even better than I had imagined.” She then presented a gift of books for the children at Shawanosowe School.
Father George Gardner reminded the room of water’s importance.
“We take water for granted. We always have, but in this day and age that’s changed a little,” he said. Father Gardner added that he learned the importance of safe water first-hand after two of his brothers died from drinking contaminated well water.
“We need to remember the treasure water is in our life,” he said.
Next to the podium was Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes.
“This is more than a community of visions and dreams. This is a community of action,” she said. “There are so many communities that need and deserve what you’ve been able to achieve.”
Ms. Hughes stressed that all people need access to safe, clean drinking water.
“There is no reason First Nation communities shouldn’t have clean drinking water,” she said. “There is a lot of work that has been done, but there is still a lot to do.”
Ms. Pelletier invited elder Jean McGregor Andrews to lead an opening prayer for the meal, marking the end of the day’s speeches. There was plenty of water to go around the room, something this community has been pushing to improve for decades. But for WRFN, with its many years of development projects still to come, this was only a drop in the bucket towards realizing its full potential.