Pikangikum: A northern Ontario First Nations community in transition

When three engineers learned of the tragic story of Pikangikum, a remote First Nations community near the Manitoba border, they volunteered their time and engineering services to help the community create solutions to the unique challenges of living in Ontario’s vast, low-density north.  

For Bob White, P.Eng., it began with the coroner’s report. White, a retired engineer who has spent much of his career in consultation and risk management, teaches a mandatory two-day ethics class for engineering students at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario. In 2011, a student in his class mentioned to White that she had worked for then-Deputy Chief Coroner Bert Lauwers, who had recently released a report entitled The Office of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation 2006–2008. It’s a haunting synopsis of epidemic suicide among children and teenagers—some as young as 12—in a small remote First Nations reserve in northwestern Ontario, close to the Manitoba border.

Pikangikum is accessible year-round by plane, by boat when the river is open and for a few months in the winter by ice road. The community, with a population of 2300, is young, with 75 per cent under the age of 25. It is located on the shores of Pikangikum Lake at Berens River, about 100 kilometres north of Red Lake, ON. Until this month, it has had no access to Ontario’s power grid, instead relying on a decades-old diesel generator to power the whole town. This limited the community’s ability to build new houses, resulting in families of 20 living in two- and three-bedroom houses. And, although the community has a water treatment plant and watermains, most houses lack access to indoor water, so families are forced to collect what they need from a water distribution centre. To make matters worse, the community was, until September 17, on a long-term boil water advisory.

Lauwers’ report paints a picture of a community in crisis, caught between tragically ill-thought-of 19th-century government policies, conceived within a cloak of colonialism and expansionism and a desire for a 21st-century quality of life. Focusing on 16 youth suicides between 2006 and 2008, Lauwers notes: “The themes that emerged from a review of the circumstances of the deaths and the lives of the youth was not a story of capitulation to death, but rather, a story of stamina, endurance, tolerance and resiliency stretched beyond human limits until finally, they simply could take no more.” Of the 16 suicides that Lauwers looked at in this two-year period, he noted:

  • They were all between the ages of 12 and 18;
  • All were by hanging;
  • They happened in clusters (for example, three deaths in five days in January 2006);
  • None of the youth had sought help from a trained professional in the month leading up to their deaths;
  • Substance and domestic abuse were common in the youths’ families;
  • Many of the children were solvent abusers; and
  • Over half the youth had had exposure to suicide in their families.

Most alarming, Lauwer cited statistics sourced from The Canadian Press stating that in 2000, Pikangikum’s suicide rate was 36 times the national average, meaning that if a city of three million people shared this suicide rate, it would have had over 14,000 deaths by suicide that year.

White, who identifies as Kitpu First Nation, grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, before coming to Ontario to earn his civil engineering degree from the University of Toronto. Although White never applied for his Indian status, he felt a great deal of compassion for the plight of the people of Pikangikum. One winter, when he was a child in Cape Breton, his family’s house burned down, and they moved to a house with no indoor washroom. It was -50 C outside. “You don’t want to be getting up [to use the outhouse],” White says. “Imagine how many times your mother and father have to get up during the night. Somebody has to take that galvanized bucket out in the morning and dump it in the outhouse.”

White felt compelled to act and wanted to bring his background in international consultation in governance and risk management to help Pikangikum. “I would work with people in developing projects funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat or World Bank,” White notes, “and I would come back to Canada and figure out how we would engage and mobilize the industry in that country to be more ethical and build capacity. All my projects would last for years. I would go to Brazil and meet with the government and say, ‘You pick 10 consultants, and I’ll train them.’ And I would go in regularly to observe the changes in the company or government agency.” White decided he would use the same focus on self-reliance when he founded the non-profit Pikangikum First Nation Working Group.

The focus on self-reliance is an ideology shared by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the federal department responsible for delivering infrastructure and social services to indigenous communities across the country, including Pikangikum. ISC acknowledges that the First Nations infrastructure deficit may be as high as $30 billion; housing, water, health facilities, roads and broadband (see “The digital divide”) are critical areas that need to be developed. And although it admits there were 91 long-term drinking water advisories in indigenous communities in January 2018, ISC remains committed to lifting all advisories by March 2021 and has allocated $173 million over the next three years to help accelerate the progress.

ISC is interested in “co-developing distinctions-based housing strategies [with] First Nations, Metis Nation and Inuit.” After the National Indigenous Economic Development Board—led by First Nations, Metis and Inuit business and community leaders—stated that closing the productivity gap in economic outcomes between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada would raise the GDP $28 billion annually, ISC Minister Jane Philpott became a champion of public-private partnerships, with indigenous Canadians in leading roles.

It is an approach also championed by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships (CC3P), which asserts that the federal government has not prioritized infrastructure investments on First Nations reserves very far into the future. The partnership model was created to help build infrastructure faster, deliver better value for money, increase competition and expertise and deliver high-quality infrastructure to indigenous communities that desperately lack resources. This, CC3P notes, is crucial for First Nations communities, citing the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) assertion that indigenous communities’ capital expenditures across the country were underfunded by between $169 to $189 million.

Irving LeBlanc, P.Eng., was one of the first people White contacted when he began his efforts to help the people of Pikangikum. LeBlanc is the director of housing, infrastructure and emergency services for AFN and previously worked as a project engineer for the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation, which provides technical and advisory services to many of Ontario’s First Nations communities to help foster technical self-reliance. LeBlanc first met White in 2009, when they were part of a water expert meeting. “Two billion people around the world don’t have access to clean water, and a small portion of that is in Canada,” LeBlanc notes.

LeBlanc is careful distinguishing his volunteer efforts with the Pikangikum First Nation Working Group and his advocacy role with AFN, which has given LeBlanc permission to work at Pikangikum. In his role as advocate, LeBlanc compared First Nations communities from both northern and southern Ontario: “There’s a difference, but not by much. Even in Six Nations (near Brantford, ON), the big communities, only the core of that community has distributed water. When you get out to the town lines, [they’re] on cisterns. Once you step on a reserve, it’s a whole different world.”

But LeBlanc is quick to point out that First Nations communities in northern Ontario have unique challenges, notably no access to the power grid, the communities’ remoteness and climate change. They rely on hydrocarbon generators that are maxed out in the winter, partially due to age; the winter roads aren’t lasting as long as they once were; and when communities run out of fuel in August, they have to fly it in at huge costs. “The cost of food up there is extraordinary. If you can’t afford the bottle of juice, you go for pop. And not being able to drink the water!” LeBlanc notes. “My unit [at AFN] is focusing on a strategy that will identify housing needs. Right now, we’re not getting sufficient money to address the severe overcrowding. Same with water; we’re advocating for better water regulations. At the same time, we don’t want to put First Nations in jeopardy by putting regulations on them that they can’t meet.”

The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) can attest to the challenges of delivering safe drinkable water to Ontario’s First Nations communities. The provincial agency has partnered with over 50 First Nations communities to deliver, support, engineer and plan for delivery of safe, clean water services. “We provide ongoing support as needed throughout our partnership,” says OCWA Vice President of Operations Richard Junkin. “We have a significant municipal operational presence across the province, with many facilities and operational teams in close proximity to the majority of Ontario First Nations communities.”

Junkin observes that there are additional challenges to providing safe water to remote communities: “The challenging nature of source water in the north, combined with high electricity costs, can make solution options that are tested and recommended for facilities in southern Ontario unsuitable for northern climates,” he says. “In many cases, there are often more effective—and more locally sustainable—treatment options available that will provide clean, safe water. OCWA looks at each community’s individual needs…It’s essential to create a balance between new technologies and standard treatment alternatives to protect public health and the environment, regardless of location.” The remote northern locations are often challenged by lack of staff and lack of ease of access; however, OCWA recently partnered with two First Nations organizations to install remote monitoring systems that enable real-time, offsite monitoring. The response has been positive, and OCWA may expand it to other communities in the future.

Interestingly, OCWA has worked with Pikangikum in the past, notably in 2007, when the community’s school burned down, severing two watermains and causing a potential crisis at the community’s treatment plant. OCWA partnered with Pikangikums to repair the watermains, restore the system integrity and disinfect the water plant. They then tested the distribution system. “Working side by side in partnership with this community over a period of time, what came through very loud and clear to our staff was the overall pride and resiliency of the people of Pikangikum, especially after the loss of a crucial meeting space,” Junkin says.

David Steeves, P.Eng., was the third engineer to join the Pikangikum First Nation Working Group. Reflecting on Pikangikum, Steeves observes: “You have a generation of youth growing up in a net world, and they see what kids have in southern Ontario and wonder, ‘I’m Canadian, why don’t I have toilets and showers and houses with more than one room for privacy?’ You can see here how infrastructure issues can contribute to mental health issues. They feel left out. What we’re trying to do in our own way is break the circle of despair. We’re showing them they’re loved by other Canadians, such as those in other parts of Ontario. Hopefully we’ll help this community become self-sufficient.”

Steeves is retired from IBM, where he began as a silicon designer and eventually rose to senior management. For the last seven years, he has spent much of his time teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at an inner-city school in Toronto, ON, and doing mostly pro bono consulting work, including developing business plans and fundraising strategies for non-profit organizations. In fact, White jokingly refers to Steeves as the bag man because of the money he’s raised for the Pikangikum project.

Steeves often travels to Pikangikum using his own airplane and brings people and supplies with him. He’s observed first-hand the lack of infrastructure in Pikangikum. “We ran into power issues because, like most reserves, they weren’t on the power grid [at the time]. They were on generators that were running at 105 per cent capacity.” To accent this fact, Steeves notes that when they began retrofitting houses with water pumps, they couldn’t run because of the lack of power. “My background is electrical engineering from Waterloo, so I was able to determine that we could save [enough] power through switching to LED lights,” Steeves explains. “We received 3000 bulbs—donated by Siemens—and had the youth install them.”

White and Steeves split responsibility based on their respective strengths, with Steeves focusing on fundraising and White organizing a collection of non-profit social organizations, businesses and Toronto-area faith communities to mobilize their efforts to bring real change to Pikangikum. In the first phase of the project, completed in September 2014, they retrofitted 10 homes with a water and wastewater system, complete with 650-gallon holding tanks; and in the second phase, completed in September 2017, another 10 homes were retrofitted, this time with 1200-gallon holding tanks, thus reducing the need of emptying the tanks from three times a week to once a week.

“[We’re] three engineers who understand a project and what needs to be done. The main project is retrofitting the homes that don’t have running hot and cold water,” LeBlanc observes.

White adds: “[The government said it would be] roughly $200,000 per house. You can build a new house for that. [They] didn’t give any options; it just gave a cost, $80 million [for the entire community]. The government looked at that, and there was no option, there was no ‘This is the Cadillac option, and this is the Volkswagen option.’ So the government rejected [it].” White notes that they initially partnered with Frontiers Foundations—a non-profit organization that no longer operates—which was able to refurbish each house for just $20,000. Frontiers also asked for an additional $80,000 to train people from Pikangikum to work on the houses. The community’s leadership was involved in the process, choosing the houses to be retrofitted. “They picked the most vulnerable households,” White says. “In one, there were 11 people, and the elder had no legs due to diabetes, and her daughter had only one. And their toilet was outside.”

Working with the chief and council, the group’s achievements so far include:

  • Designing a self-contained water system, including a pump, bathroom and kitchen 
    fixtures, heater, 1200-gallon cistern and 
    holding tanks, and providing running water for 50 houses;
  • Providing a portable saw mill for a youth lumber co-operative project to generate income—this included successfully negotiating with Pikangikum’s White Feather Elders to agree to allow the youth to develop their own successful business;
  • Purchasing chainsaws and safety equipment and training for Pikangikum’s youth, who have contracts to supply lumber and firewood;
  • Partnering with Habitat for Humanity Manitoba to provide project management and training to local youth in the retrofitting of many of the houses; and
  • Working with faith groups to fundraise and donate money, including the Catholic Church, which donated $100,000 for a youth co-op; a Muslim temple that raised $5,000 for scholarships; $100,000 from the Anglican Church and $50,000 from the Timothy Eaton United Church in Toronto, ON.

Working with the White Feather Elders was a challenge, White acknowledges. They had initially refused to support the business, partially out of a resentment that came from frustration. But White was able to put it in perspective: “In my research, I knew you needed four elders to speak about the spirits. Most of the elders were students of the residential schools. They were there for 15 years. Their culture was beaten out of them. They were called ‘dirty Indians.’ They were told they were going to become white and Christian. They were abused physically, mentally and sexually. It took a toll. They couldn’t speak about their spiritual outlook.” White thinks this may explain Pikangikum’s weariness to speak with outsiders. (Engineering Dimensions attempted to reach out to Pikangikum’s community members, including council members, but was unable to make contact.)

The ability of indigenous communities to determine and advance their economic and social prosperity is on the mind of ISC Minister Jane Philpott. “I think [infrastructure and economic development] are absolutely tied together with things like the right to self-determination and working respectively with First Nations communities, who have the solutions and have the vision of what they would like to see in their communities,” Philpott told Engineering Dimensions. Philpott is cognizant of the efforts of White, Steeves, LeBlanc and the Pikangikum community, and praised them: “There are huge infrastructure gaps in First Nations communities, and when we see that other partners want to work with these communities, we think these are good outcomes.”

Philpott was in Pikangikum earlier this year with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and met with Chief Dean Owen. Owen spoke to them about the overcrowding in many houses, including a woman on the council who was living with over 20 other people in a two- or three-bedroom house. “They had to sleep in shifts, and this is not uncommon in some of these communities,” Philpott says. “Pikangikum, in particular, has had real challenges because of the infrastructure; a large number of the houses don’t have indoor toilets or showers, so there is a tremendous amount that needs to be done to address these gaps and ensure these Canadians have a good quality of life.”

Philpott is committed to using a public-private partnership where possible and cites Pikangikum’s connection to the power grid this month by Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power, a public-private partnership that is 51 per cent owned by 22 First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario, including Pikangikum; and 49 per cent owned by utility company Fortis Ontario. The federal government donated $1.6 billion for the project, and 15 additional communities are scheduled to be connected by late 2020.

Noting the environmental savings of 16 communities phasing out their dependence on diesel fuel, Philpott notes that the economic self-reliability that comes with the grid is essential. “The economic gaps that have existed are deep in cause, but one of the challenges is the opportunity for economic prosperity,” Philpott says. “Already at the start it’s 51 per cent First Nations owned, with the eventual goal that it’ll be 100 per cent owned. I think this is a fantastic model that will be used by many others.”

Representatives from Watay Power and Fortis were unavailable for comment, but Watay Power’s website (www.wataypower.ca) has an informative video about the opportunities that the connection to the grid should bring. In it, Watay Chair Margaret Kenequanash, who is also the executive director of Shibogama First Nations Council, states: “It will change the landscape and pave the way of how we do business with everyone in Ontario and Canada. Our communities want to invest in business opportunities for the coming generation.” The video also shows the overcrowding in houses, stemming from the fact that diesel generators can power only a finite number of buildings.

Reflecting on the trio’s work in Pikangikum, Steeves remained humble about the role engineers can play in Ontario’s First Nations communities: “It was just by chance that we’re P.Engs,” he notes. “This is like no other engineering issue, so we were able to identify the stakeholder and develop a solution with partners and community leaders.” There are lots of working opportunities for engineers in indigenous communities, Steeves further observes. “Next to immigration, indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing group in Canada, so the private sector, working with the communities, may find this a high-growth area of opportunity, including education and training. I feel what the government is attempting to do is develop partnerships with other organizations, given that government can’t do it all. Although our primary focus in on water and sewage systems, there are many other major infrastructure issues to be addressed.” Steeves says that many licensed engineers may want to take advantage of the new Indigenous Homes Innovation Challenge, launched this fall by ISC and Infrastructure Canada to help fund creative indigenous-led home and community innovations projects.

But Minister Philpott remains cautious: “There are business opportunities, but I would want to emphasize that you have to focus on the rights and expectations of the communities to speak for themselves and not have outsiders speak their ideas, so if people work in general partnership and operate together, there can be real success. We know that in the past, there have been Aboriginal communities that have been exploited for profits, so I wouldn’t want the profits to be the driving factor for why people are getting involved. But what’s good for indigenous peoples is good for the economic good for the country. Ignoring the social and economic gaps is detrimental to all Canadians. If you want to help with the economic disadvantages, the significance can be important.”

The Pikangikum Working Group may be the model for the future.