Guaranteed supply of clean, safe water puts better future on tap for Enoch Cree Nation

Someday when his daughter is old enough, Marcus Morin will take her with him to work.

She might first notice the sound of the pumps, a constant whirring and humming as if they have a life of their own. The ambient noise would drown out the squeak of her shoes on the concrete floor as she wanders around peering at the numbers on the meters. She could press her hands on the cold blue pipes, the arteries of the pump house her dad helped build.

Outside, she would watch the clean, fresh water pour from those pipes into massive trucks.

She might ride in the truck with her father, refilling cisterns and ensuring 4,000 people living at Enoch Cree Nation can trust what comes out of their taps.

Lulu’s experience growing up on the First Nation will be much different than her father’s.

She will know the water is safe.

Until the new pump house connecting the reserve to the City of Edmonton’s water supply opened early this year, Enoch Cree Nation had off-and-on boil water advisories for 25 years.

Enoch borders Edmonton to the west. The River Cree Resort and Casino sits across the street from a Costco to the east and from the city’s Rosenthal neighbourhood to the north, where new homes sell for around $500,000.

Marcus Morin is a junior water operator at Enoch Cree Nation’s new water pump house. He’s grateful his daughter, Lulu, won’t experience the boil water advisories he grew up with. (Supplied/Marcus Morin)

Despite its proximity to the city, clean tap water was never guaranteed or conveniently available for Enoch residents until now. The decades of boil water advisories were in place due to high levels of arsenic and other substances in the well water.

The contaminants in the water were at times obvious. Morin remembers weekly trips with his mother to a laundromat in Edmonton to wash clothes and other items they couldn’t risk being ruined by the water on the reserve. It would leave white clothes tinged with a rusty colour.

Problems with the water affected every aspect of daily living, Morin said.

“You couldn’t go to your tap to turn on your water, grab a cup of fresh H2O just as simply as you would in Edmonton or any other big city around Alberta,” he said.

“Going to the store and grabbing a big jug of water is kind of how we had our freshwater supply. That’s our main source. Otherwise we’d be boiling our water for various cooking methods.”

Marcus Morin is proud to be an operator at the new water treatment facility at Enoch Cree Nation. The new facility means the end of 25 years of frequent boil water advisories in the community bordering Edmonton. 2:05

Three short-term drinking water advisories in Alberta

The federal government has promised to end long-term boil water advisories in First Nations communities by 2021 by funding the repair, upgrade and building of water and wastewater infrastructure.

According to the government, 80 long-term drinking water advisories — those that have been in place for longer than one year — have been lifted since November 2015. Sixty long-term advisories remained in effect as of February this year.

Most of the country’s boil water advisories are in Ontario.

The only long-term boil water advisory that remains in place in Alberta is in Kehewin Cree Nation, about 230 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. The construction of a new water treatment plant is underway, with an estimated completion date of July 2020.

The government has also committed to supporting water operator training and ensuring short-term drinking water advisories don’t turn into long-term problems.

In Alberta, three short-term drinking water advisories remain in place: at Samson Cree Nation, Blood Tribe and Little Red River Cree Nation.

When the federal government announced in 2017 it would provide $13.6 million to build a new water treatment facility at Enoch, Morin saw his chance to be part of long-term change.

He’d never considered leaving Enoch. Having grown up understanding the problem, he knew he could be part of the solution.

“The younger you are the more you have to offer,” he said. “The longer you’re going to be within the growth of that expansion. You have more time to develop, more time to grow.”

Morin joined the project as a member of the construction crew in 2017. When the plant opened in January, he watched elders bless the water.

Lorraine Makokis, who’d had to melt snow for drinking water as a child, was one of the first to take a sip. It was an “overwhelming” moment, she said.

In February, control of the plant was officially transferred to the First Nation. Morin is a junior operator, and one of three staff members.

Someday, he’d like to manage the plant.

‘Water is life. It’s essential, it’s key to everything.’

Weeks after the boil water advisory was lifted, the changes are subtle.

The existing water grid has been disinfected and the plant’s five water trucks have worked around the clock to ensure every home has access to clean water.

Morin said despite decades of water concerns, residents have been quick to trust the water coming from the new treatment plant. 

That hasn’t been the case across Canada.

At some First Nations that produce clean drinking water, like Garden Hill First Nation in northern Manitoba, residents have been hesitant to drink it. At homes where pipes aren’t connected to the water treatment plant, cisterns hold their water. If the cistern isn’t clean, the water inside won’t be either. 

Morin said the cisterns, or storage tanks, of those who live on acreages are now kept full more regularly. He hasn’t heard any major concerns from the community since the plant opened.

He wasn’t expecting much fanfare. Reliable clean water is something most Albertans don’t think much about. Now, Enoch residents don’t have to either.

Considering how close they are to Edmonton, Morin simply wonders why it took so long.

“Edmonton is right there and we’re kind of on the border of it. It was a surprise to see it take this long,” he said.

“I think a lot of growth could have happened a lot sooner.”

It was a surprise to see it take this long. I think a lot of growth could have happened a lot sooner.– Marcus Morin

There are signs of bigger changes to come as a result of the improved water system, but they’ll take a while to be realized.

Morin expects economic growth will be one of them. Clean and reliable water is crucial for existing businesses and in attracting new ones. A new kindergarten to Grade 12 school — Maskekosak Kiskinomatowikamik — is under construction and expected to open in the fall.

“We wouldn’t get the school without a new water upgrade,” Morin said. “There’s other proof there that having a new water supply improves and gives you good expansion within your community itself.

“Water is life. It’s essential. It’s key to everything.”

For Morin, one of the most exciting aspects of having clean water is the way it could further foster a sense of community.

He’d like to play with his daughter at a community spray park someday, or help flood an outdoor rink for her to pass a puck around with friends on sunny winter days.

Hockey was a big part of his life growing up. He spent almost every day at the Enoch Recreation Centre. Sometimes, if someone forgot to bring bottled water, he’d eye the taps in the locker room, considering whether it would be fine to take a drink.

On a cold Sunday in February, he found himself at the arena once again. Children skated around the ice during hockey practice, stopping to gulp from water bottles balanced on the sideboards.

Morin stepped into one of the change room and turned on the taps.

“I don’t hesitate anymore,” he said, watching the clear water swirl in the sink.

“I just kind of grab my water bottle and go.”

A water truck turns in front of the Kitaskinaw School at Enoch Cree Nation. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)