A northwestern Ontario First Nation that was under a boil-water advisory for 24 years has received this year’s award for building the province’s best small drinking water system.
The Ontario Public Works Association presented the 2022 Public Works Project of the Year for Small Municipalities and First Nations award to Shoal Lake #40 First Nation, at a ceremony in Mississauga, Ont., Tuesday.
The award recognizes the new Shoal Lake #40 water treatment plant as having uniquely provided opportunities for local procurement and employment.
“It succeeded because the community was in control of every facet, every step of the way,” said Cuyler Cotton, the project’s technical adviser.
The $33-million plant opened in September and provides water to over 100 buildings in the First Nation, located near the Manitoba border. Its network leaves room for new homes to be built, as members are returning to live in the community.
Shoal Lake #40, which straddles the Ontario-Manitoba border, has 667 registered members, including about 300 who live on reserve.
It had been under drinking water advisories since 1997, until the facility opened last September.
‘Our whole goal was clean drinking water’
“We didn’t have any intention of winning an award like this,” said Shoal Lake #40 Coun. Bill Wahpay. “Our whole goal was clean drinking water, but the water treatment project was a unique project, right from the start.”
The project was designed as an Indigenous Services Canada pilot to see whether an Indigenous-specific tender process could better serve Indigenous communities. Right now, all projects worth more than $500,000 need to go to a national bidding competition, according to a department spokesperson.
The plant was built on time and on budget over 18 months, under an Indigenous Services Canada pilot project. Its procurement process required companies to be majority First Nations owned. Of the three qualified applicants, the successful bid was a partnership between Shoal Lake #40’s Kekekoziibih company and Sigfusson Northern Ltd.
The tendering process also required the project to employ at least 30 per cent First Nations labour. It far exceeded that, with 53 per cent.
“Local labour, local equipment, local employment brought back to the community… We built this facility from the ground up, right from the site preparation to the nuts and bolts of the building,” Wahpay said.
“It’s an amazing, amazing project. That’s how the majority of projects should be run on all of the First Nations, not just First Nations, but all the rural municipalities around the area, around Canada. That’s how it should be done.”
Andrew Burdett is the superintendent with Sigfusson Northern.
Burdett supervised the water plant’s construction, and was involved with Shoal Lake #40 for over two years in the new school and Freedom Road, the historic project completed in 2019 that connected the peninsula to the Trans-Canada Highway and ended a century of isolation.
WATCH | Shoal Lake #40 First Nation celebrates end of drinking-water advisory
Burdett said Kekekoziibih’s involvement was crucial because its leaders were so familiar with local residents that they were able to tailor personal paths to successfully recruiting and retaining workers.
Some community members who had experience on previous projects were able to start their own contracting companies and purchase equipment, which he sees as contributing to a sustainable, local industry.
“It really promoted independence for business owners,” said Burdett. “It’s definitely a change from the normal where we go into communities and leave with all of our equipment. They were left with something and a little bit of a construction business to go on.”
Thunder Bay, Ont.-based Colliers Project Leaders is evaluating the pilot project’s process for the federal government.
Colliers senior project manager Sean Petrus said he observed workers being excited on the job site and motivated to work hard out of community pride.
Although the report is still being drafted, Petrus will recommend that this model be applied to projects in Indigenous communities across Canada, including exploring value-for-dollar equations that could keep expenditures low without having to tenure projects publicly, beyond local companies.
“I’d like to see First Nations being granted more opportunity where they don’t have to fight as much to get the work that’s going on right next door to them,” said Petrus. “The opportunities for self-determination should be provided to more communities so they can realize successes like the successes that have been realized by Shoal Lake #40 in this process.”
The evaluation report from the Shoal Lake #40 pilot is expected to be complete sometime this spring, according to Indigenous Services Canada.