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Exploring First Nations water rights in Maskwacis

Exploring First Nations water rights in Maskwacis

In conversation with Councillor Mario Swampy and the Nipiy Committee

Established in 2013 and now in its third term, the Nipiy (water) Committee focuses on representing Samson Cree Nation’s interests in managing, protecting, and enhancing water resources to achieve water governance and sovereignty.

Councillor Mario Swampy played a significant role in the creation of the committee; now as the acting Chairman, he works towards finding solutions to water challenges in Samson and Maskwacis.

Swampy said that the Nipiy Committee arose out of conversations with his childhood friend, Danika Littlechild. “She was working on her Master of Law in the area of water rights, and she made a comment that resonated with me,” said Swampy.

“She said ‘water is a human right everyone has a right to water. If everyone is fighting for their human right to something as fundamental as water, what do you think will happen to Treaty Rights?”

Treaty Rights are of paramount importance to Indigenous people across Canada: “they’re all about our relationship with provincial and federal governments.”

Though Swampy had little background in politics and law, he looked to friends and colleagues to discover more. “A friend who happened to be a Maskwacis water operator approached me and explained the challenges we face around ageing infrastructure, water access, and water quality.”

The Nipiy Committee brings experts together to address water rights in Samson Cree Nation collaboratively. “I wanted to have access to technical, legal, political, historical and spiritual perspectives,” said Swampy.

Swampy said that the committee seeks to inform, create awareness, and provide education on water issues. “Water is in everything. There is no way to escape the need for water because it impacts education, housing, livelihood, and business.”

Over the last several years, the Nipiy Committee has worked hard to take ownership of solutions. However, there have been challenges with the Canadian government.

In the last few years, several University of Alberta engineering students working on their master’s degrees completed some work within the community that eventually led to one of the students helping develop the Samson Cree Nation water plan.

“Our plan wasn’t dictated by someone else saying ‘this is what you need,’” said Swampy. “Whenever we pursue something that helps us develop and build nationhood it’s not supported because of the dependency model that First Nations people have been struggling with for generations.”  

The government does not support the technical plan that the nation worked hard to create. “When you choose to do something to protect your nation that may fly in the face of what the federal government is proposing, there’s not a lot of fiscal support,” said Swampy.  

Swampy said many federal decisions pushed forward on the technical side undermine First Nations’ autonomy. “The government plans to regionalize. To create a regional water line and pump it to our doorstep so we can tie on or truck it to homes. It’s a temporary solution.”

“If we as First Nations are truly sovereign and then become nothing more than customers to a water line, we’re at the whim of whoever runs the show the decisions are out of our jurisdiction,” said Swampy.

In 2011, Canada hired an engineering company to complete a national water study. The firm discovered that it would cost around 4.7 billion dollars over ten years to bring all First Nations up to basic standard level drinking water.

Canada later released a statement saying they would give First Nations 330 million over two years to address water issues. “If you do simple math it doesn’t add up. That’s only a drop in the bucket to address all of Canada,” said Swampy.  

With the 330 million dollar commitment from Canada, Swampy explained how Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) structures would oversee the process and regulate approaches. Swampy said that INAC usually addresses reserve concerns by going from band-aid solution to band-aid solution.

“Most of the time, INAC finances an outside company to come in and do research. We’re left with a final report that sits on a shelf and outlines all of the problems, and never offers any tangible or practical solutions.”
Another issue with the INAC structure is the allocation of resources. “Half of that 330 million is going to go through administration because INAC is a huge machine,” said Swampy. “When the money trickles down to the First Nations, it’s pennies on the dollar. It’s not adequate.”  

In Justin Trudeau’s vow to end boil water advisories in First Nations communities over five years, only 100 out of 630 Nations in Canada were identified.

“There is a church in a rural area in the Samson location that the government identified in the report. They took care of the boil water advisory there. But, we still had over 150 homes living with the advisory.”

Swampy explained that the problem was left unresolved. “Politicians like to make these grand statements so that it sounds good on the news but, we don’t just want temporary solutions that look good for a political party,” said Swampy. “Down the road, we see that they haven’t even addressed any of our issues.”

Swampy’s biggest frustration is that politicians have arguments that outlast political terms and parties. “It’s the same conversation year after year. But, the people on the ground suffer the people who don’t have access to safe and clean drinking water.”

Nipiy aims to empower and inspire the Samson Cree Nation to have a voice in conversations about solutions to water issues. “It’s been a slow process. Although it begins to paint a bleak picture it’s a reality we’ve been living with for many years,” said Swampy.

“I believe that a healthy First Nation leads to a healthy province which leads to a healthy nation and country,” said Swampy. “Even though we’re nations within a nation, our treaty relationship can only be strengthened to help all of us as citizens, if we work together.”
“Nipiy was formed to help us start building long-term sustainable planning development and growth, and solutions that will last for generations.”


Also published in the Maskwacis Drum magazine September 2018 issue.

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