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BC Tests Found Unsafe Lead Levels in Water of 35 First Nation Schools

Getting help and funds to fix the threat can be frustrating. A special report.

Francesca Fionda 23 Feb 2021The Tyee / Institute for Investigative Journalism

Francesca Fionda is a freelance investigative and data journalist, and journalism instructor.

When Trever Andrew found out there was a small amount of lead leaching into the tap water in the girl’s washroom at T'selcéwtqen Clleq'mel'ten/Chief Atahm School, he knew it was important to act fast. There is no safe level of lead exposure and children are particularly vulnerable. In adults, lead exposure increases the risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. In children, lead can affect the development of the brain and nervous system, causing learning disabilities and behavioural disorders. 

Looking back, Andrew, who is the water operator for the Adams Lake Indian Band on the edge of Little Shuswap Lake, understood the consequences of lead in water can be “quite dramatic.”

But if Andrew had waited for official guidance on what to do next, he might have been frustrated. Sources at First Nations schools in B.C. say dealing with water worries can mean facing a confluence of confusing bureaucracy, secrecy and funding scarcity.

Thirty-five schools in First Nations across the province had unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water, according to a 2018 briefing note prepared for Health Minister Adrian Dix obtained by the Institute for Investigative Journalism. The tests, done in 2017, were conducted by the First Nations Health Authority in 261 different daycares and schools on reserves across the province. The authority is responsible for the delivery of health programs and services to First Nations in B.C. 

What the FNHA discovered should not have come as a total surprise, given that water testing in all B.C. schools had revealed nearly a quarter of those tested had lead problems, and public money and effort had been invested in tackling the issue. 

But First Nation schools in B.C. face several barriers to taking similar measures to ensure water is lead-free, reveals an investigation that is part of the project “Clean Water, Broken Promises,” led by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism with a consortium of universities and media outlets. Reporting for this article was done in collaboration with The Tyee and journalism students at the University of British Columbia. 

Once lead is discovered in a First Nation school in B.C., the obstacles can start with getting money to fix the problem. On top of these funding challenges, Indigenous communities described a lack of transparency, support and guidance from government bodies to ensure safe water.     

The First Nations Health Authority would not provide the names of the schools where elevated lead levels were measured or say what, if any, specific steps were taken to protect children in those schools. “We are only responsible for the water testing, which is done according to best practices on a regular basis,” said an FNHA spokesperson via email. “The results are shared with community along with any recommendations the officers might have.” 

The spokesperson referred reporters to Indigenous Services Canada, stating that First Nations in B.C. work with the federal government on next steps.  

Indigenous Services Canada wouldn’t provide specifics, but said if lead is found in drinking water, it provides funding for any remedial measures needed. It pointed back to FNHA, saying that provincial authority “has taken on the responsibility” for sampling water and giving health advice and technical support to First Nations communities in B.C. “For drinking water sampling questions, please contact the FNHA.” 

In a February 2020 briefing note, Indigenous Services Canada stated that “no system-wide drinking water advisories regarding lead are in place and we continue to monitor children's facilities, including schools. If lead exceedances are found in drinking water, we work together with First Nation community leaders to implement remedial actions such as flushing or the replacement of affected taps.”   

Adams Lake Indian Band water operator Andrew describes the relationships between water operators for First Nations like himself, FNHA and Indigenous Services Canada as “dysfunctional.” 

He says he received no direction from FNHA after it provided the drinking water test results that tipped him off to elevated levels of lead at his community’s school. Andrew said he didn’t go to Indigenous Services Canada because, after 20 years on the job, he felt his funding request would just get denied. 

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Trever Andrew, the water operator for the Adams Lake Indian Band, found concerning lead levels in the nation’s school and replaced plumbing. He’s developed an app that tracks all his community’s water data and lets him share it with leaders. Photo supplied.

Andrew decided to take action anyway — even though the lead, he says, wasn’t above the maximum acceptable limit at the time. By the time Andrew was done, he had replaced the tap and sink and added new fittings.  

“I just stripped it right down and made sure that I had everything covered. But there’s no instructions to say rip it down, right? I just went ahead,” said Andrew. “And there’s no recommendations in how to address it. So I just stripped everything down, I did my research and found out where it was coming from, put in all new parts and then I resampled and it came back negative.”

Whether similarly thorough actions have been taken to safeguard the health of children in 35 First Nations schools and daycares identified to have lead issues is not clear. Such facts appear to be hidden even from public scrutiny. 

For First Nations, more obstacles

Testing for lead in water in B.C.’s schools started after a class in Kitimat noticed salmon eggs in their aquarium were dying. In 2012, a school staff member alerted Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which tested the school’s water and found the school had eight times the safe level of copper. Health authorities began testing nearby schools for copper and lead and found elevated levels in the drinking water at several schools in the community.  

As more tests came in, multiple health agencies recommended routine testing in schools across the province. By 2017, the B.C. government made regular testing in public and independent schools for lead in drinking water the law. Schools are expected to work with their local health authority to test for lead and have a clear communication plan in place for sharing results. First Nation band-operated schools work with the FNHA.

Unsafe levels of lead were found in 26 per cent of the taps tested in non-First Nation schools between 2016 and 2017. In some cases, schools had levels more than 100 times the safe limit set by Health Canada at the time. Affected schools responded with a range of solutions in consultation with their regional health authority, including plumbing upgrades, installing lead removal filtration systems, deactivating water sources, putting up signs and flushing to remove stagnant water, according to the Ministry of Education.  

By 2017, the provincial government made $7.25 million available through grants for schools to fix or replace lead or copper piping. Six schools received “accelerated investment.”

“My goal is to have every student in B.C. attend a healthy and safe school, and this is another step toward achieving that goal. We know we have more work to do, and that is why we are accelerating capital investments throughout B.C.,” stated then-education minister Rob Fleming. 

Public schools in B.C. have access to an annual facilities grant to address routine maintenance, including health and safety issues, which is currently $115.5 million.

It was “fairly easy” to get funding to address lead problems in School District 27, said manager of facilities and transportation Alex Telford. The Cariboo-Chilcotin school region has 22 schools, many of them rural, with 13 getting their water from wells.

In 2017, more than a third of the tested fixtures in the district had elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. A few schools in the district received funding to re-pipe and the rest got funding to replace their drinking fountains. Telford says the lead filter fountains were approximately $1,500 each, costing the entire district about $30,000. They’ve also added some funding to their budget to replace the filters about once a year as part of preventative measures.  

But First Nation schools on reserves don’t qualify for any of these grants, as their infrastructure funding comes from Indigenous Services Canada. 

“I’m lucky it was just one sink,” says Andrew of the Adams Lake Indian Band, who estimates it cost $300 to $500 to replace the plumbing and fixture. He worries that other communities might have far more expensive problems and no guidance or specific budget to address them. The Institute for Investigative Journalism surveyed 122 water operators in First Nations across the country. Many said they feel there isn’t enough funding to address water-related problems in their communities. They face tough choices about how to spend limited money in their operations and maintenance budgets meant to address the needs of the entire community.

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Chief Seymour of the Cowichan Tribes knows what it’s like to fight for clean water. Parts of his community finally achieved a hook-up to the city of Duncan’s system in 2018. Even one First Nation school with unsafe lead in its water is ‘too many,’ Seymour says. Photo: Cowichan Tribes website.

“First Nations, for years, have been fighting to get safe drinking water,” said Chief William Seymour of Cowichan Tribes. Cowichan Tribes is the largest First Nation Band in B.C. with over 4,900 members. Their traditional territory covers much of southeastern Vancouver Island extending across the Strait of Georgia. About half their members live on reserve lands, most of which were placed in the floodplain of the Cowichan or Koksilah Rivers by the federal government, which causes damage to homes and contaminates drinking wells.

Parts of the community living on reserve didn’t have access to clean water for almost three decades, until hooking up to the nearby city of Duncan’s water system in 2018. It was a major undertaking.

“I've got community members that have never been able to bathe or shower, or cook without boiling water. So it's a change for them to have something safe.” Today, some parts of the community have arsenic in the water and a new agreement with Duncan hopes to address that, says Seymour. 

Told that 35 First Nations schools and daycares in the province tested positive for lead in their water, Seymour responded, “One is too many.”

Cowichan Tribes’ new source of water doesn’t mean it’s immune to the lead problem. While the daycare, elementary school and middle school on reserve are all hooked up to Duncan’s municipal water system, lead and copper can find its way into drinking water through older plumbing, faucets or drinking fountains. 

Neither the Cowichan Tribes health director nor the supervisor for the community water testers was able to confirm if FNHA provided the 2017 water testing results for lead and copper in schools to the community. 

‘You’re competing against each other’

When school administrator Edith Loring-Kuhanga joined Stein Valley Nlakapamux School about four years ago, she knew that getting access to their school’s water data was important. Before working at at the school, Loring-Kuhanga was on Greater Victoria’s water advisory committee and served as the board chair for the Greater Victoria School District. While she was on the board, the school district installed new water fountains, bottle fillers and in-line filtrations systems in all 47 schools to reduce lead in drinking water.

Stein Valley Nlakapamux School is part of Lytton First Nation and is a registered independent school and a member of B.C. First Nations Schools Association. First Nation schools are either operated by the band or through an independent body. First Nation schools are outside the province’s jurisdiction unless they choose to also become a certified independent school. Loring-Kuhanga is from the House of Gwininitxw, Gitxsan Nation, and has navigated both the public school system and the First Nation schools.   

Loring-Kuhanga says she always requests the reports from water testing done by the FNHA. “And if they forget that, I usually follow up because one of the other things that has to happen is, if you're an independent school, and you're registered under the Ministry of Education, you have to follow those same guidelines that all public schools have to follow.”

As a newer facility erected 11 years ago, Stein Valley Nlakapamux School hasn’t had a lot of issues regarding lead in the water, Loring-Kuhanga says. Changes to B.C.’s plumbing code introduced in 1989 limited the use of lead in plumbing, so schools built after 1989 are at lower risk of having elevated levels in their water, according to an FNHA fact sheet

But until 2014, national regulations allowed faucets made principally of brass to be as much as eight per cent lead. And lead has been found in water in B.C. schools built up until 2014. 

Loring-Kuhanga says FNHA still recommends that they flush the water fountains and taps in the kitchen every morning for about 30 seconds as a safety measure.  

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Edith Loring-Kuhanga of Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, who served on the Greater Victoria water advisory committee, says the funding process from Indigenous Services Canada forces First Nation communities to pit one need against another, and favours schools with personnel best at writing grant requests. Image from a YouTube video.

If Stein Valley Nlakapamux School were to discover lead in its water, it would be important to respond quickly. But a cumbersome process stands in the way.

The school wouldn’t be able to get funds from the same provincial annual facilities grant that non-First Nation schools can access. Instead it would have to apply to Indigenous Services Canada in a process that also looks at the needs of the entire community and is reviewed every three years.

It’s as if B.C. public schools were made to compete with municipalities for capital investments, explains Loring-Kuhang. And if you miss your funding opportunity, you have to wait three more years to re-apply. 

“When you have competing needs in the community, it's really difficult because you're competing against each other.” She ticks off all the entities vying for slices of the same pie, including all community buildings, perhaps another school or daycare, the band office, housing. Even the operations and maintenance department responsible for keeping water supplies safe draws its budget from the same overall source. “So you're competing with all of that.”

Sometimes outside funding is a possibility. But to try for it takes the time and skill to write proposals, and the experience to know where to look, says Loring-Kuhanga.

“And so for schools who don't have that extra, they just get further and further behind, because they can't do all of what's being expected of them, because they don't have the funding to do it.” She believes having a more streamlined funding approach for First Nations schools could help make the process easier.

Indigenous Services Canada officials responsible for water safety in First Nations schools declined an interview request and in an email confirmed there is no specific fund to deal with lead in First Nation schools and that communities apply for funding through the Capital Facilities Maintenance program. Part of that program includes “$969.4 million over five years, starting in 2016-2017, for the construction, repair and maintenance of First Nations education facilities” across Canada. Indigenous Services Canada could not confirm how much funding has gone towards addressing any lead issues in schools. 

But in January, the Institute for Investigative Journalism conducted a wide-ranging interview with federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Marc Miller in which he said that Indigenous Services Canada works with the priorities of the community to address clean water and acknowledged old piping in schools can be an issue. "Anytime that's raised, I think there's a real keen interest to ensure that any projects relating to fixing acceptable lead situations are remedied quickly." 

A simple test, a ‘big concern’

Communities in coastal B.C. are naturally more at risk for lead exposure in drinking water. That’s because many of them get their water from lakes replenished solely or mostly by rainfall, and that rainfall tends to be acidic.

When that acidic water makes its way through plumbing, it can corrode the pipes and pull lead and copper into drinking water. While B.C. restricted lead in plumbing over 30 years ago, trace amounts can still be found in faucets and solders used to join pipes. In 2018, investigations by IIJ found acidic water in dozens of communities across B.C., creating a higher risk of lead leaching into drinking water because of old pipes or plumbing. 

The way to know whether water is acidic enough to cause corrosion and potential lead and copper poisoning is to do a pH test. 

But more than one out of three water operators for First Nations in B.C. surveyed by the Institute for Investigative Journalism didn’t immediately know the pH of their water systems, some saying they don't test pH as part of their role. 

Adams Lake in the Shuswap Lakes region, home to Secwepemc people. Adams Lake Indian Band water operator Trever Andrew warns that lead can leach into water systems with a low pH level and he tests regularly. But such testing in many other First Nations in BC is not always done by their own water operators. Photo via Shutterstock.

Andrew has been a water operator for over 20 years and his work has been recognized by the BC Water and Wastewater Association. He says that water operators should “absolutely” know the pH of their own systems. “What causes lead to leach into your water system is that it could have a low pH to it. So that means it’s corroding or it’s slowly eating away at the lead or the lead fittings or the lead pipe,” explains Andrew. Testing the pH levels of the water is one way to flag any potential corrosion.

Yet many of the 41 surveyed water operators in First Nations in B.C. said they relied on someone else to test pH levels and share with them the results — either the FNHA or the operator of a municipal water system they used. 

FNHA has a lot of water to monitor. There are over 200 First Nations across B.C. and 191 of them have a total of 333 on-reserve water systems that are part of the FNHA Drinking Water Safety Program. On top of that, there are more than 1,300 well clusters or private systems that are also periodically monitored by FNHA.

The First Nations Health Authority does chemical testing on all First Nations community water systems every five years, and in 2015 reported no samples were above the drinking water guideline levels for copper and lead. FNHA did not provide the results of its 2020 tests.

One water quality expert finds it “really shocking” that so many water operators said they don’t do pH tests themselves or know the pH of their water. “That’s a big concern,” said Charles-François de Lannoy, an assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering at McMaster University. He’s part of an interdisciplinary team of McMaster researchers analyzing contaminants in the water and co-developing solutions to water quality issues on reserves with Six Nations of the Grand River.

His work convinces him there should be regular, rigorous testing on reserves for not only lead but mercury, cadmium and arsenic, he says. “These are found in trace levels and even though they’re very small concentrations, they can cause chronic harm in consistent, chronic exposure,” says de Lannoy. Water is part of everyday life, we have to be exposed to it to live.

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Charles-François de Lannoy, an assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering at McMaster University, finds it ‘really shocking’ that many water operators on First Nations in BC said they don’t do pH tests themselves or know the pH of their water. Photo via McMaster University.

Experience shows testing can sound valuable alarms. Documents obtained by the Institute for Investigative Journalism consortium via access-to-information request revealed tests conducted by the City of Prince Rupert in 2019 measured elevated levels of lead in the tap water of 41 out of 65 homes. Health Canada’s current guidelines for measured lead in water is five parts per billion, or ppb. Municipal testing in Pemberton revealed lead levels as high as 107 ppb in 2016. Tests conducted by students from the University of British Columbia in the City of Whistler in 2019 found elevated levels of lead in seven out of 10 homes constructed before 1994. Unlike other provincial governments, B.C. did not implement regulatory changes in response to the Institute for Investigative Journalism consortium’s findings.

While testing for heavy metals is expensive, testing for pH is easy and inexpensive and pH meters are widely available, said de Lannoy. “Without having an infinite number of resources to test every single water main in every single city every week, you have to be judicious about where you test.”

Having water operators check and monitor pH is an inexpensive way to monitor any red flags in a community’s water quality, he said. 

But many water operators in First Nations the Institute for Investigative Journalism spoke to throughout the course of a year-long investigation described feeling overworked and underpaid compared to municipal counterparts and pointed to a severe lack of funding for training and operations and maintenance.

Metlakatla First Nation water operator Dallas Leighton says it’s really important that pH is monitored on a constant basis. The community is about five kilometres north of Prince Rupert on a site that’s been occupied for thousands of years by the Metlakatla people. 

Leighton, who has been a water operator for over 10 years, believes that high turnover, lack of training and low wages are likely why some water operators didn’t know the pH levels of their community water systems when surveyed. 

Last year, the Institute for Investigative Journalism tested one of the taps at Metlakatla’s daycare and found 0.29 ppb of lead which is well below Health Canada’s guideline. Leighton says FNHA’s 2017 testing also showed that there were no issues with the water in the daycare.

“What makes Metlakatla successful is basically we’ve kept a commitment to the community and kept all our water operators trained,” Leighton said. He also points out that the community has access to other funding outside of Indigenous Services Canada through the Metlakatla Development Corp., the business arm of the Metlakatla First Nation, to help fund their training.

Leighton is currently one of two certified water operators for the on-reserve community of about 120 people, and says the rest of his team is getting more training. While COVID-19 has made training a little more challenging, Leighton says they’ve continued with online courses.

Caught in a ‘jurisdictional juggle’

Jim F. Brown, a member of Lytton First Nation, started First Nation Operator Waters Net, a support group for water operators in B.C. and Yukon that aims to bring attention to the expertise of water operators in community decision-making. 

“I think the frustration a lot of the operators are having is there’s no support from First Nation Health Authority,” said Brown. He was the water operator for Lytton First Nation for over 35 years until he resigned in 2016. Lytton First Nation’s 56 reserves are scattered in a 100-kilometre radius between Hope and Cache Creek on both sides of the Fraser River. A small part of the community has been on a do-not-consume advisory since 2013.

Like Andrew, Brown thinks the FNHA and Indigenous Services Canada bureaucracies need to work together better to help First Nations know about and deal with lead and other toxins in their water. “If there's high levels of lead, then they can make a recommendation to whoever is going to make a decision to look into it further.”  

Coty Zachariah, with the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, says government confusion and inertia are endemic to the ongoing water crisis in Indigenous communities across Canada. The organization represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota communities in what is now called southern Manitoba. “This is a situation that the government created, by pushing us off into the margins,” he said. “The roots of this are a systemic discrimination.”

Sixty-six long-term water advisories and dozens of short-term water advisories are in place across the country and access to water remains a major challenge for many communities. 

Through colonization, the Canadian government forced Indigenous people onto reserves and created the Indian Act to undermine thousands of years of traditional self-governance. Colonizers tried to destroy the structure and hierarchy of First Nations as well as their established ways of sustaining their health, education and culture. 

The government “put us on reserves and took us away from our water source,” says Brown. Indigenous communities were forced into areas without reliable water and that history is “probably one of the biggest reasons we have all these boil water advisories.” 

Today, First Nations people across the country are caught in a “jurisdictional juggle,” says Zachariah. “It wastes a lot of time having to go and plead that case to whichever government will listen, whether provincial or federal,” he says.

“In the meantime, people are still getting sick from the water. In the meantime the water quality still goes down, from a myriad of issues.” 

Zachariah, from Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, says lack of access to data and the ability to do their own testing has prevented First Nations from tackling water issues. So this summer, members of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization travelled to 25 First Nations in southern Manitoba to conduct their own water testing.

The team tested the water for total metal content, dissolved oxygen, E. coli, total coliform bacteria and phosphorus levels with the goal of presenting a report to the community and creating a regional database.

“I know that we have to provide the information, but I’m scared at how drastic those numbers are going to be,” he said. “And it highlights the need for consistent, annual monitoring, which is what we’re going to do, because we can’t rely on anybody else to give us those numbers.”

Trever Andrew decided to take matters into his own hands by developing an app that tracks all his community’s water data. It gives him instant access to any measurements he takes and lets him share that data with leaders. The app is called Sewllkwe, which means “water” in the language of the Secwepemc people. The Sexqéltkemc te Secwepemc (People of the Shuswap Lakes Region) which includes the Adams Lake Indian Band, have traditional territories from Sts’xum (Monte Creek) to B.C.’s Rocky Mountains.

“With innovation and tech, you can organize. You can clear the hierarchy,” says Andrew. When communities and water operators have access to their own data in a transparent and easy-to-manage format, they can detect trends and advocate for specific solutions, he says.  

The long-term solution, says Zachariah, is “First Nations control.”

The Atlantic First Nations Water Authority signed a framework agreement in June to transfer water and wastewater services to 15 First Nations in Atlantic Canada from Indigenous Services Canada. Now the Southern Chiefs’ Organization is working on a proposal to create a First Nations water authority for their communities.  

“Generations of neglect have got us into this situation,” says Zachariah. “It’s going to take generations of investment, generations of capacity building and generations of handing over the keys of the things that you took.” 

Files from Lauren Donnelly, Jamuna Galay-Tamang, Brenna Owen (University of British Columbia), Jasper Watrich (University of Regina).

Investigative team:

Institute for Investigative Journalism reporting fellowship: Carol Eugene Park, University of British Columbia.

University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism: Braela Kwan, Carol Eugene Park, Brandon Wei (Instructor: Charles Berret).

See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits and more information about the consortium on the Clean Water, Broken Promises website

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University. For tips on this story, please contact the reporters at:  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Health, Education

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