Department's Response to the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems

The National Assessment

The National Assessment is the most comprehensive and rigorous survey ever undertaken of First Nation water and wastewater systems by a federal government. From July 2009 to spring 2011, independent engineers inspected 4,000 on-reserve systems including 1,300 water and wastewater systems and more than 800 wells and 1,900 septic fields serving 571 First Nation communities.

Subsequently, using Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada's (AANDC) Risk Level Evaluation Guidelines, the independent contractor assigned a risk rating to each of the 807 water and 532 wastewater systems inspected.

Additionally, the contractor also provided cost estimates and overall recommendations to assist AANDC with its future financial planning and decision-making processes.

The National Assessment shows an increase in the number of high risk water systems compared to previous reporting. A water or wastewater systems risk rating is a measure of overall system management risk, not necessarily of water safety or quality.

The National Assessment results show the majority of risk is due to capacity issues, although infrastructure issues and lack of enforceable standards are also a factor.

The results highlight the need to work with First Nations to develop a detailed strategy to address these issues. The Government of Canada will work in partnership with First Nations to address training and capacity issues; make better use of new technologies for water and wastewater treatment and for remote monitoring of systems; and to develop and implement a regulatory regime for water and wastewater on reserve through legislation.

The Canada-Ontario First Nations Pilot to Improve Drinking Water Quality is a good example of how we are working with communities to find solutions other than prohibitively costly centralised piped systems.

AANDC's response to the findings of the National Assessment will be further adapted as the department analyzes the results and engages with First Nations and other stakeholders.

Key Findings

Risk Assessment

Water Systems:

Of the 807 water systems inspected, 39 per cent were classified as high overall risk, 34 per cent were labelled medium overall risk and 27 per cent were categorized as low overall risk.

Wastewater Systems:

For the 532 wastewater systems inspected, 14 per cent were evaluated as high overall risk, 51 per cent as medium overall risk, and 35 per cent as low overall risk.

It is important to note that a risk rating of a water or wastewater system is a measure of overall system management risk, not of water safety or quality. Operation and Maintenance (O&M), operator qualification, and record keeping account for 60 per cent of the risk measured. This underscores the vital importance of having trained and certified operators for reducing risk and helping to ensure safe drinking water in First Nations communities.


The National Assessment also estimated AANDC's financial cost to meet its protocols for safe water and wastewater and the cost, over ten years, of ensuring that First Nation water and wastewater systems are able to grow with communities to meet their needs. The contractor's projected estimated servicing cost, including $1.2 billion to meet AANDC's current protocols, is $4.7 billion.

Of this, the contractor also estimated future servicing costs in excess of $60,000 per home for 55 per cent of the communities.

As this cost per home is high, the contractor also recognized that, at a certain point, the cost of providing a typical servicing solution may begin to exceed the benefits of that solution.

While increasing funding for capital projects may seem like the most obvious solution, design risks only account for 30 per cent of the risk identified in high risk systems.

AANDC's Response to the National Assessment

AANDC's response to the National Assessment findings and recommendations builds on existing programs and initiatives to support First Nation communities in providing residents with the same quality of safe, reliable, and healthy drinking water as other Canadians.

The response identifies immediate activities and future opportunities for action in three key areas:

Between 2006-2007 and 2012-2013, the Government of Canada will have spent approximately $2.5 billion to support First Nation communities improve water and wastewater systems through investments in infrastructure, developing enforceable standards and protocols and capacity building and training.

This includes approximately $1.25 billion in water and wastewater infrastructure funding AANDC transferred to First Nations and First Nation organizations, between April 1, 2006 and March 31, 2010. A total of 130 major water and wastewater projects that cost over $1.5 million were completed over this four year period. Almost 120,000 individuals living in these First Nation communities have benefitted from these investments.

Already this year investments in 15 water systems the National Assessment identified as having a high risk and high overall risk rating are planned or underway, and an additional 57 are planned over the following four years.

At this point in time, response activities will be implemented through existing budgets and regulatory measures.

Key Activities by Priority Area

Infrastructure Investments: Improving technologies and partnerships to ensure the best use of infrastructure funding

  • On July 6, 2011, the Governments of Canada and Ontario announced the Canada-Ontario First Nations Pilot to Improve Drinking Water Quality, a new joint three-year initiative harnessing innovative and alternative drinking water systems to improve water quality in Ontario First Nation communities. If successful, these technologies may be applied to improve on-reserve water systems in First Nation communities across the country.
  • AANDC will work with willing First Nation partners on developing shared water services agreements with municipalities. A two-year project is underway with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to provide tools and best practices to help First Nations and municipalities develop shared water services.
  • Given the need for the federal government to prioritize investments, we will work with partners to develop cost-effective and sustainable solutions for the provision of water and wastewater systems.
  • AANDC will work with First Nations to develop an initiative to bring existing wells up to standards. In particular, special attention is required to remediate wells serving community buildings such as schools, daycares and band offices.
  • Budget 2010 committed the federal government to review, in partnership with First Nations, the current approach to financing First Nations infrastructure, in order to establish a life-cycle approach to funding capital assets and place the financing system of on-reserve community infrastructure on better footing.

Enhanced Capacity Building and Training

  • AANDC will work with First Nation organizations to restructure the Circuit Rider Training Program (CRTP) in order to: improve program delivery consistency; clarify performance standards and provide direction on the frequency of visits to First Nations; and ensure that trainers have clear minimum qualifications.
  • AANDC is funding the Circuit Rider Trainer Professional Association (CRTPA) to host an annual conference to support professional development and share best practices.

Enforceable Standards and Protocols

  • Following the receipt of the National Assessment measures to strengthen water and wastewater inspection processes and to increase national consistency were immediately implemented.
  • Until there is legislation in place, current standards and protocols will be reviewed, clarified and updated in the short-term to bolster water and wastewater protection in First Nation communities.
  • Legislation will enable the Government of Canada to collaborate with First Nations and other stakeholders to develop a regulatory regime for on-reserve water and wastewater.

Next Steps:

This is an immediate response to the findings of the National Assessment and will be revised further as the department analyzes the results and engages with First Nations and other stakeholders. As this response plan indicates, given the need to prioritize investments, AANDC will work with First Nation partners to develop cost-effective and sustainable solutions. This work will be informed by the unprecedented reference tool the National Assessment provides. The Government of Canada is moving forward with water legislation.

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