Trudeau Vows to End Boil Water Advisories for First Nations across Canada- Five Lessons Learned from One Community’s Success

By: Michael Gillis, Constance Lake First Nation Water Treatment Operator; Councillor Roger Wesley, Constance Lake First Nation; Scott Mackay and Don Richardson, Shared Value Solutions Ltd.


The 2016 Canadian federal budget was full of investment promises, including some critical spending for First Nations community health, education, and infrastructure needs.  One of those promises was a vow to end boil water advisories on First Nations reserves across Canada by investing $1.8 billion in operations and maintenance for First Nations water treatment and $141.7 million in on-reserve water monitoring and testing.  It appears the government may guide its specific funding decisions based on a 2011 INAC report


However, there are some critical issues and lessons learned that communities who have already dealt with this issue can share. We share the experience and five key lessons learned from one innovative community- Constance Lake First Nation- that turned a long-term State of Emergency related to its drinking water into a springboard for the future.


High-Level Results

Restoring water security to a northern Ontario First Nations community facing the long-term consequences of a compromised surface drinking water supply:

  • Developing a groundwater-based drinking water supply
  • Replacing an aging Water Treatment Plant with a new plant using innovative and regionally-appropriate treatment technologies
  • Developing a community-based Water Management Action Plan to guide future water supply development and use, restore Constance Lake water quality, and address stormwater management issues
  • Providing employment and training opportunities for on-reserve community members

Project Context

Constance Lake First Nation (CLFN) has been on a long journey with water.

For many years, the community had no running water- elders tell the story about how it was like this when the people of Constance Lake First Nation arrived at the present location of their community in the 1950s.  When they arrived, the lake was used as a log pond for the sawmills (there were two at the time), and had been used that way for some time.  For many years, people used to carry water in buckets to their homes from the lake or the river.  In 1973, a water plant was built to treat drinking water from the lake along with a distribution system.  The water from the treatment plant was of a fairly good quality at first, but for periods of time in the year it would be brownish in colour and would stain clothes and teapots when used for washing or boiling for tea.  In the 1990s, the lake water began to change.  Algae blooms started to occur, causing problems with the water plant and affecting the quality of water delivered to residents. 


These occurred occasionally at first- happening some years but not others.  Over time, the blooms happened more regularly- sometimes more than once a year- lasting longer and becoming more severe.   As the new millennium began,  the community began to think about other sources of water, including well water.  They studied other possibilities, but all the options seemed too expensive and too difficult to get the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) to fund. 


The water plant was also seriously ageing by this point and both the equipment and the structure of the plant was regularly failing.  In 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2010, the community was placed on boil water advisories by Health Canada as a result of poor water quality, persistent blue-green algae blooms, or equipment issues with the water plant.  This caused significant hardship and costs for the community.  In 2010, the community declared a State of Emergency as a result of the long-term boil water advisory.  This was no longer just a challenge- it was now a water crisis.


Project Objectives

The primary project objective was to take an innovative funding, planning, and treatment approach to restore CLFN’s water security in a way which could be replicated in other northern First Nation communities facing similar challenges, including:

  • Leveraging combined federal, provincial, and community funding
  • Switching the water supply from a vulnerable surface water source to a secure groundwater source.
  • Installing and commissioning an innovative water treatment solution to address regionally-specific treatment challenge such as high iron and manganese levels in source water.
  • Creating a community-based and actionable water management plan to guide future water supply and management and address other important water issues for the community.
  • Undertaking knowledge transfer activities to share this approach with other First Nations communities in the north.


  • Poor surface water quality as a result of historic phosphorus loading to Constance Lake- the community’s surface drinking water supply- and related chronic blue-green algae blooms causing a water security State of Emergency.
  • High levels of iron, hardness and manganese in a newly developed groundwater supply, typical of regional conditions.
  • Lack of seed funding or capital financing to meet federal government infrastructure funding requirements and priorities to replace an aging Water Treatment Facility (WTP).
  • High levels of unemployment and few skills development opportunities for on-reserve community members.
  • Need for community-based and strategic direction for community leaders on needs, priorities, and mechanisms for future water supply development, communications to the community on drinking water quality, restoring Constance Lake water quality for traditional and recreational uses,  and stormwater management.

Solutions and Results

  • Funding from the Showcasing Water Innovation (SWI) program of the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change‎ was leveraged for innovative treatment technology was leveraged to build a new WTP, funded also by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and CLFN.

  • Implementation of an innovative green sand filter in the new WTP addresses elevated levels of iron and manganese in the community’s recently established and secure groundwater-based drinking water supply.  Advantages of the filter include:

o   Lower capital cost and footprint size

o   Chemical requirements result in lower operating costs and simplified chemical handling

o   Lower labour costs

o   Reduced maintenance costs

  • A  community-based Water Management Action Plan was developed with extensive community involvement (community meetings, Liaison Committee, and youth workshops) and community household and institutional water use and equipment surveys.  The Action Plan includes an alternatives analysis, priority actions for implementation, recommended funding sources and a one, two, and five year implementation workplan.  Priority areas for action identified by the community are:

o   Water use and supply

o   Water quality

o   Cleaning up the lake

o   Stormwater management

  • Employment and training- 9 CLFN members were employed as general labourers and doing site excavation work to construct the new WTP over an approximately 1 year period.   One new WTP operator was hired and trained to achieve Level 2 operator certification at the new WTP, and  two existing WTP operators  (one Level 2 and one Level 3 operator) were trained on operation of the new WTP.
  • Knowledge transfer: Organized and delivered the GroundSwell Conference in 2014 to bring together over 120 Ontario First Nations community, municipal, academic, federal and provincial government, and NGO representatives interested in innovations in groundwater assessment, treatment, and protection and management.  One of the primary focuses of this 2-day conference was for First Nations communities across Ontario to learn from each other and other communities about ways to improve water security.  CLFN and other northern First Nation travel costs to the conference were subsidized.  The SWI program funding provided seed funding for the conference along with a range of other sponsors including the RBC Blue Water project, United Nations University, the Ontario Clean Water Agency, Ontario Centres of Excellence, and various private other private sector sponsors.

Ontario Technology at Work

Napier-Reid’s innovative MD-80 greensand filtration equipment hard at work removing high levels of iron and manganese from regionally typical groundwater in the newly commissioned Constance Lake WTP.    More information on this innovative Ontario technology can be found at



Next Steps

The new CLFN WTP was commissioned and is fully functional as of March, 2016.  CLFN hopes to continue to share its experience and knowledge of the project with other First Nation communities in the north, to implement the Water Management Action Plan over the next 5 years, and to develop water-related or supported businesses that will help to build long-term prosperity in the community as a result of its restored water security.


Lessons Learned- Application to Ontario First Nations Communities

Many First Nation communities across Ontario- especially in northern/remote locations- are suffering from short or long-term boil water advisories, aging water treatment infrastructure, and/or have a vulnerable surface-based drinking water supply.  Blue-green algae blooms in lakes and reservoirs are on the increase due to climate change and other factors.  Ontario First Nations are increasingly looking to other sources of funding or financing for critical infrastructure such as water treatment systems.  Our project may have useful “lessons learned” for other Ontario First Nations, including:

  1. Reduce water supply vulnerability by moving to a groundwater source of drinking water
  2. Leverage funding from the provincial government and/or innovative sources of infrastructure capital financing to increase your community’s priority or likelihood of having water treatment infrastructure upgrades also funded by the federal government.
  3. Lasting water security solutions require community, not just engineering, input- community engagement can improve the acceptability, prioritization, and understanding of the need for such solutions over what may be an extended fundraising, design, and construction process.
  4. Build shared value into the project through maximizing and designing for employment and training opportunities from the project.
  5. Think long-term by pairing immediate infrastructure needs with long-term integrated planning to consider and design for non-domestic water use needs and priorities including to support economic development.

Project Acknowledgement and Contacts

CLFN Chief and Council would like to gratefully acknowledge the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada for funding this project.  We would also like to acknowledge our project consultants AECOM (engineering consultant), Keewatin-Aski Ltd. (engineering consultant), Wickham Consulting (project manager), Nuna-Mahikunuk Tribury General Contractor (water treatment plant construction), Shared Value Solutions Ltd. (funding solutions, community engagement, and water management planning), and Hutchinson Environmental Sciences Ltd. (Constance Lake limnology studies and cleanup strategies). 


For more information, please contact:

Constance Lake First Nation Band Office- (705) 463-4511 (phone) ; (e-mail)

Michael Gillis, Water Treatment Plant Operator, PNCL- (705) 463-2227 ; (e-mail)


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