National First Nations Water Leadership Award

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About the award

There are people who, by their everyday actions, are able to guide, influence and inspire. We call them leaders.

The National First Nations Water Leadership Award recognizes First Nations individuals or organizations that have demonstrated leadership and outstanding dedication to the advancement of clean and safe drinking water in First Nations communities, today and for future generations.

In March 2018, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) created the National First Nations Water Leadership Award, which is open annually to nominations for eligible candidates. An advisory committee of First Nations partners reviews the nominations and provides recommendations to the Minister of Indigenous Services.

Who is eligible

Eligible candidates are:

Eligible candidates must have demonstrated leadership and made outstanding contributions to the advancement of clean and safe drinking water in First Nations communities by:

2021 winner

Jonathan Riberdy

Jonathan Riberdy

Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, Ontario

Nominator: Madjid Mohseni, Professor, University of British Columbia and Scientific Director, RESEAU Centre for Mobilizing Innovation

"My favourite part of my day-to-day work within Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is ensuring we have clean drinking water. Showing trainees and our community members the processes of the water plant. Teaching my knowledge to other operators is the most rewarding, knowing that I can share my knowledge. Four times a year in Zhiibaahaasing, we host a water ceremony with our Elders and women take the lead in these ceremonies for our clean drinking water. We take this time to say Miigwech (thank you) to the water for letting us have clean drinkable, fishable and swimmable water. Having leadership at these ceremonies shows the commitment towards water and gives them an understanding of the water processes. I would like the leadership to respect operators and respect the knowledge we hold and the pride we take in ensuring our water is safe. I would also like leadership to promote water and wastewater jobs in their communities."

Read more from Jonathan Riberdy

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

First and foremost I would like to say I am honoured to be nominated for this award and thank you to the people that took the time to nominate me.

The biggest need is having safe drinking water in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation. Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is located on the largest freshwater island in the world and we have been on a long-term boil advisory for over 30 years. Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is currently without a water treatment plant. In the summer of 2019, Zhiibaahaasing Water Treatment Plant was in danger due to high water levels approaching the building. In the spring of 2020, the building was deemed unsafe as the integrity of the building was compromised due to water levels and high winds. The water plant was decommissioned. A state of emergency was declared by Chief and Council and is currently still in effect.

In the summer of 2019, the winds and high water levels raised concerns for the integrity of the building. I watched and observed the water levels on a daily basis and I had expressed my concerns that the water levels were nearing the building. On the evening of June 29, 2019, the winds were high, so I went to check the plant around 7 p.m. and found the water had washed under the water treatment plant and started to remove the rock supporting the foundation. The holding tanks that hold 13,000 gallons of water sat on the corner where the water had washed away the foundation. The fear was the weight of the water could damage the whole water treatment plant. At this point, leadership was notified that emergency support was required. That evening, E. Corbiere & Sons were called in for emergency support and were on site within 1 hour of the call out. That weekend and in the following weeks, loads of rock and armoured stone were delivered to protect the water treatment plant from future damage from the rising waters. A new break wall and raising of the ground level was completed during the summer and into the winter months.

During the spring of 2020, the concern was there again from high water levels and wind. The wind was so powerful that Chief and Council declared the water treatment plant, that was built in 2013, structurally unsafe.

Once Chief and Council declared the State of Emergency, the community was without water. No drinking water, no water in the cisterns and no deliveries. We were able to quickly reach out to MChiigeeng First Nation for support. We hired Bright Water Services out of Kitchener to deliver water from MChiigeeng First Nation 3 times a week and 2 to 3 loads a day. We also had to provide clean drinking water to each home. Culligan Water was obtained to bring drinking water once a month to the community. Each home was equipped with a water cooler to support the jugs that they received. Currently, Culligan is still providing water delivery.

During this time, I worked alongside my Chief and Council, Band Manager, ISC, First Nations Engineering Services Ltd. and BI Pure Water to get a temporary water treatment plant in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation. The plan was to have a sea-can built as a portable package plant to ensure Zhiibaahaasing had water in the community. A distribution line was placed in the ground to connect the package plant to the low lift station that pulls water from Lake Huron. The package plant arrived September 3, 2020.

Training for the package plant started in December 2020. Training was for 2 weeks with the operator from BI Pure Water. Once the training was finished, the first load of water was delivered on December 25, 2020. With this new package plant, it was imperative to have 2 operators on site while water was delivered via truck to each cistern, to monitor the PLC and ensure there were no alarms during hauling.

Now, Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is waiting on a new water treatment plant and distribution system. This new system will get Zhiibaahaasing First Nation off the long-term boil water advisory and allow for removal of all the cisterns from each home and community building.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

My favourite part of my day-to-day work within Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is ensuring we have clean drinking water and showing trainees and community members the processes of the water plant. Teaching my knowledge to other operators is the most rewarding, knowing I can share my knowledge. Troubleshooting and cleaning the instruments are some of the ways I teach my trainees, along with completing in-house water samples. Hands-on learning for myself and other trainees is the best way to learn water treatment.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

Four times a year in Zhiibaahaasing, we host a water ceremony with our elders and women take the lead in these ceremonies for our clean drinking water. We host these 4 times a year to ensure our community takes this time together to honour the water and discuss issues we have with water in our community. We take this time to say Miigwech (thank you) to the water for letting us have clean drinkable, fishable, and swimmable water. Having leadership at these ceremonies shows the commitment towards water and gives them an understanding of the water processes.

I would like the leadership to respect operators and respect the knowledge we hold and the pride we take in ensuring our water is safe. I would also like leadership to promote water and waste water jobs in their communities. I would like to see more female operators in this field as they protect and care for our waters. I would like to see 1 female operator to every male operator.

2021 nominees

Simon House

Simon House

Paul First Nation, Alberta

Nominator: Rod Badger, Technical Services Advisory Group - Circuit Rider Trainer

"I believe the biggest need in our community drinking water is the assurance that the water is safe and that the community can trust this. We should not take the water running from our taps for granted and we can all play a role in cherishing our drinking water by beginning to understand how water makes its way into our homes and what we can do conserve it."

Read more from Simon House

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

I believe the biggest need in our community drinking water is the assurance that the water is safe and that the community can trust this. I work hard to keep our water system operating adequately so it can provide the much needed clean drinking water, and I feel my work is very important to this assurance. I sample the water quality closely at different points throughout the system and react as quickly as possible to any situation that may arise and put the quality at risk. Being the water and waste water operator for my community gives me a strong sense of pride and it is truly an honour to be in this position.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

In regards to my favourite part of the day-to-day work, I would have to say it is arriving at the water plant and hearing the hum of the equipment, and knowing right away if everything is good or if something is wrong or out of line. This skill really comes with experience and training. Some days are smooth while other days, not so much, but I must say that's what keeps it exciting. Another favourite part of the day to day is knowing that I am playing my part in the health of the community because water is life and is a necessity for remaining strong going into the future.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

I have always believed that healthy water equals a healthy community and we should hold it up as the most important resource we have in our lives. We should not take the water running from our taps for granted and we can all play a role in cherishing our drinking water by beginning to understand how water makes its way into our homes and what we can do to conserve it. I think public education or training in this matter is important and should be a focus when it comes to community discussions.

Chief Crystal Okenow-Atcheynum

Chief Crystal Okemow-Atcheynum

Lucky Man Cree Nation, Saskatchewan

Nominator: Randonn Swann of SaskWater

"People often take water for granted. The biggest need is education and awareness of this critical resource. Education is key when it comes to understanding and appreciating drinking water, but just as important is source water protection. An idea I have is to develop a pamphlet and/or poster for the community. Have the pamphlet made by school-aged kids to let them know about their water, where it comes from and the process involved in getting it from the source to their homes. It gets the future leaders involved. It also creates awareness and understanding, and it plants the seed in a more communal way."

Read more from Crystal Okemow-Atcheynum

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

People often take water for granted. The biggest need is education and awareness of this critical resource. Education is key when it comes to understanding and appreciating drinking water, but just as important is source water protection. Because I've worked in the field of water for many years in a couple different capacities, I've had discussions with leadership, community members and other water operators about a variety of things. For example, water distribution systems, boil water advisories, free and total chlorine, iron, manganese, reverse osmosis, well protection, surface water, and ground water. The common denominator in sharing information is being approachable and communication. I need to understand what's being asked so that what I'm sharing is understood by who I'm talking with.

An idea I have is to develop a pamphlet and/or poster for the community. Have the pamphlet made by school-aged kids to let them know about their water, where it comes from and the process involved in getting it from the source to their homes. It gets the future leaders involved. It also creates awareness and understanding and it plants the seed in a more communal way.

Everyone needs to understand and support source water protection. By knowing more about this, it encourages and promotes source-water awareness. Water is vital for all life but we must always think of the future generations. Source water protection should be a common thread amongst all of us. We are the legacy of our ancestors; we have a responsibility to them, to the ones here and to the ones yet to come. Source water protection needs everyone's participation so there is safe drinking water for all.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

When I get in, it's the smell of the plant. Looking around, feeling and breathing in the plant. As strange as that may sound to some, I love the smell of the water treatment plant.

I enjoy it all, but definitely a favourite part of my job is the troubleshooting process. You always want your plant to be operating "perfectly." However, sometimes you have issues that come up in the plant be it mechanical, electrical, the treatment process, treatment equipment and so on. These issues keep you on your toes. Troubleshooting makes you a better operator, as you are always learning and figuring out how to resolve these issues that arise. It's a never-ending learning process. Technology in the water treatment and wastewater treatment plant is always striving to do better. From that, the more that is learned then the more treatment systems are tweaked. Technology is constantly changing, so doing and learning new things happens often. This keeps the water field interesting.

I like to consult with other people, such as other plant operators, the technical support people from SaskWater and the water company's technical supports. We share information and discuss and explore solutions to resolve issues that have come up. During these discussions you're either sharing wisdom or learning.

Another important aspect is to be welcoming when people approach and ask questions about water or to be welcoming to people who have questions about getting in the water field. Any question is a good question and I enjoy sharing what I know and providing direction. It's exciting to see interest is increasing. It's even more exciting to see women in the field, as it's been a long time coming.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

When schools have job fairs or community events, they need to include the water treatment plant and operator as part of the event. Have a tour of the plant. Include the youth to make them aware of how it works and what we do as operators. Education and awareness builds trust, not just with the water they are consuming, but with the people who are working in the plant.

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This type of learning could also pique children's interest in choosing water operator as a career. Being a certified operator opens the doors for water and wastewater plant operators on and off reserve. There will always be a demand for water operators.

There is a need for Indigenous environmental engineers, water quality technicians and environmental health officers. By letting students tour the plant and get to know the job, we're planting a seed that may lead them in becoming involved in their community's water in some way or another. They could become leaders in source water protection by having events that help encourage them to keep surface waters clean and clear of debris.

Additional information:

I have been working in the field of water since October 1998. When I first started, 1 interesting thing I noticed when attending water conferences was there were very few Indigenous operators in the room. In addition to this, I was likely the only Indigenous woman in the room. However, as the years went on, I began to see more and more Indigenous peoples at these events, including Indigenous women. It made me feel good to see this, the numbers of Indigenous attendees going up each year. Indigenous peoples are getting involved and participating in these conferences, which encourages others to do the same, but it also encourages others to see the water field as an interest that is open for everyone to explore.

Final thought:

Without water, we have nothing. Nothing exists without water. That is the teaching we all need to remember, respect and share.

Territory Planning Unit

Territory Planning Unit

Grand Council Treaty #3, Ontario

Nominator: Dilber Yunus, Outreach Officer, IISD Experimental Lakes Area

"It is imperative for all communities to have access to safe drinking water. The leadership and Elders of the nation continue to provide guidance and feedback as we move forward together in order to protect the lands and water of the 55,000 square miles of the territory. What is especially important is the work with the youth to bring this work forward, as it will be them who carry this work forward in the future. The impact of where the water you drink comes from can have far greater impact than just what we see coming out of our taps. To move forward we all have to work together in order to protect Nibi (water) for future generations. Nibi has a spirit; Nibi is life; Nibi is sacred; we honour, respect and love Nibi."

Read more from the Territory Planning Unit

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

I don't believe the need for safe drinking water really has words to put on it. It is imperative for all communities to have access to safe drinking water. Treaty #3 communities continue to work towards safe drinking water for all Treaty #3 communities and the work of Treaty #3 Territorial Planning Unit looks to continue to protect the sources of this water across the territory. Having baseline data, the assertion of Anishinaabe law and relationship to Nibi (water) provides the foundation to moving forward collectively to benefit the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

The Territorial Planning Unit working in Treaty #3 territory takes great pride to work with the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3. The leadership and Elders of the nation continue to provide guidance and feedback as we move forward together in order to protect the lands and water of the 55 000 square miles of the territory. What is especially important is the work with the youth to bring this work forward, as it will be them who carry this work forward in the future.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

I think the message to share is to reflect on your own relationship with water and think of water in all forms. This is drinking water, lakes, rivers, rain, snow and many others. How does water connect with you on a day-to-day basis. And look into where your drinking water comes from. The impact of where the water you drink comes from can have far greater impact than just what we see coming out of our taps. To move forward we all have to work together in order to protect Nibi (water) for future generations. Nibi has a spirit; Nibi is life; Nibi is sacred; we honour, respect and love Nibi.

Dennis Louis

Samson Cree Nation and Montana First Nation, Alberta

Nominator: Rosey Radmanovich of the Technical Services Advisory Group

"All people need access to safe drinking water from town site residents to rural residents in Maskwacis and Pigeon Lake. Through discussions, data collection and planning, we've formed a priority list in addressing these issues. My favourite part of my day-to-day work is being able to work with people from different departments and neighbouring communities. I also really enjoy troubleshooting when problems occur."

Read more from Dennis Louis

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

All people need access to safe drinking water - from town site residents to rural residents in Maskwacis and Pigeon Lake. A filtration system that best suits the water wells that supply the town site and upgrading water distribution lines to get all boil water advisories off from rural residents. Through discussions, data collection and planning, we've formed a priority list in addressing these issues.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

Being able to work with people from different departments and neighbouring communities. For example the Nipiy committee, Maskwacis Health Services, Technical Services Advisory Group, Battle River Watershed Alliance, Urban Systems and local contractors. I also really enjoy troubleshooting when problems occur.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

The message is bring more awareness to schools and community members regarding water, from both an Indigenous point of view and a technical point of view.

Wayne Holmstrom

Wayne Holmstrom

Bimose HUB Overall Responsible Operator, Ontario

Nominator: Bimose Tribal Council

"I feel the biggest need in any community is having competent, trained, certified operators. My favourite part of the work day would be hearing from the new operator about their successes and problems that they solved during the course of the work day. Their ability to predict the results from process changes and attention to the trends before and after. Even though we have disagreements at times, we still keep in touch on plant issues and the outcomes. It is good to have this interaction with the operators as we both grow for the better."

Read more from Wayne Holmstrom

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

I feel the biggest need in any community is having competent, trained, certified operators. My job consists of training, mentoring, plant inspections, troubleshooting with the operators and plant maintenance/repairs.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

My favourite part of the work day would be hearing from the new operator about their successes and problems that they solved during the course of the work day. Their ability to predict the results from process changes and attention to the trends before and after. When new operators start telling me when the plant will shut down and start up, and have a good idea on water flows used for the day, it tells me that they are paying attention to what is going on with their plant. They also ask questions on noises or anything different that they have noticed. Even though we have disagreements at times, we still keep in touch on plant issues and the outcomes. It is good to have this interaction with the operators as we both grow for the better.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

I would say by having school and public tours and being involved in career days in the community so they know what one is doing at the water treatment plant. Posting the results of weekly community bacteria results. Attending community meetings so the public knows what, if any, issues you are having. For example, plugged collection lines due to grease being put in the sink, leaks in the community or any info that may affect the water quality.

June Williams

June Williams

Lake Babine Nation, British Columbia

Nominator: Kalpna Solanki, CEO of Environmental Operators Certification Program

"I feel I am a valuable asset to my community as I am trained and I continue with my schooling. My favourite part of day to day work within my community is the open communication and camaraderie between the members and the staff. It is such a small community, and ongoing support and feedback keep us all on the same page. For myself, being a woman in the industry is not rare but upcoming, I see more and more, and that is a good thing. Women in trades and the workforce is empowering to the whole family, to their community and employer."

Read more from June Williams

What is the biggest need regarding safe drinking water in your community and how do you feel that your work and engagement have helped to address that need?

A number of issues come to mind. A competent, trained operator, an operational system, and access to equipment and supplies, as we are in a remote area. I feel I am a valuable asset to my community, as I am trained and I continue with my schooling.

What is your favourite part of your day-to-day work within your community?

My favourite part of day-to-day work within my community is the open communication and camaraderie between the members and the staff. It is such a small community, and ongoing support and feedback keep us all on the same page. Communicating educational updates, such as hot water tank maintenance or water cooler cleaning instructions, emergency issues such as water conservation when the community ran out of water, water line breaks or hydrant flushing. This builds up trust and respect for all involved – a lot of people want to rip a hole in you, but you have to always be respectful. We do try our best as trained operators, but we are not perfect.

What message would you like to share with others as a way to encourage engagement on safe drinking water and water leadership within their community?

My message to encourage others in the water industry is to keep up with your schooling and to know and respect the people and the community you work for. The choices we make, whether it be right or wrong, we learn from it – from career or personal business that are put on to us. For myself, being a woman in the industry is not rare but upcoming, I see more and more, and that is a good thing. Women in trades and the workforce is empowering to the whole family, to their community and employer.

Past winners

How to submit a nomination

The nomination period for the National First Nations Water Leadership Award 2022 will be January 3, 2022, to February 21, 2022.

In the nomination, please provide:

  1. the full name and contact details including email and mailing address of the individual, organization or community being nominated
    • if the nominee is an individual, please mention which First Nation they are affiliated with
  2. your contact details
  3. your relationship to the nominee
  4. a description up to 500 words maximum of how your nominee meets the eligibility criteria
  5. the name, contact details and relationship to the nominee of a reference other than yourself who would support the nomination

Send your completed nomination application and any questions to ISC by email at: aadnc.proprepnh2o-cleanfnh2o.aandc@canada.ca. Note that the advisory committee may contact you or the reference provided, and incomplete submissions will not be considered.

Bursaries available

To honour the winners of the National First Nations Water Leadership Award and promote further engagement in water leadership, $10,000 in bursaries will be awarded in the winner's name each year to First Nation applicants who are pursuing or furthering their career in the water and wastewater industry. The Circuit Rider Trainer Professional Association is responsible for administering the bursaries and more information, including an application form for the bursaries, is available on the CRTPA website.

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