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Five years on, village water project nears completion

May 18 2012

Kwicksutaineuk's water woes are about to be resolved with a pledge of federal funding to replace the village's three incompatible water-treatment systems with a single system.

"By the end of the fiscal year, we hope the reverse-osmosis plant will be up and running. [Aboriginal Affairs] has dragged their feet and reprofiled the agreements while no one was watching, but now they're closing off," said Chief Bob Chamberlin.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada spokeswoman Kathy Liu confirmed that $750,000 has been earmarked this fiscal year for Kwicksutaineuk's water-treatment plant. The funding will "modify the existing water-treatment plant to increase the life expectancy of the facility and simplify operations," she said.

That is good news for the 20 members of the 270-strong Kwicksutaineuk-ah-kwaw-ah-mish First Nation who have not fled the Gilford Island village because of mouldy homes, undrinkable well water and rotten septic systems.

The deplorable state of the village, located off the coast of northern Vancouver Island, and the many illnesses and allergies suffered by band members were revealed in the media in 2004. Indian Affairs promised action, including a reverse-osmosis water-treatment plant, emergency housing and plans for new permanent housing.

The help was appreciated and eight emergency trailers meant people could leave the worst of the condemned houses, Chamberlin said. The water project took a bit longer.

"They said they wanted to pilot test three reverse-osmosis treatment plants for a year to see which best met the needs of the community," Chamberlin said.

The project, which was running by 2007, encountered numerous difficulties, but the biggest problem was that the three systems - all with different maintenance and operating rules - could not communicate with each other, resulting in one well being drained and two more having to be drilled, he said.

"It was a headache beyond belief," he said. "It was a bad idea that went really bad."

But, at the end of the trial period, Aboriginal Affairs was reluctant to commit to a new plant with one system. "They said because we had potable water, we were not as urgent any more," Chamberlin said.

Chamberlin, who is also vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, believes two face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a difference.

"I asked: 'How are you going to help our village so the words you speak will be true and not hollow?' " he said.

The next problem was persuading the federal government that the original promises included raising the village site above the flood level and developing 16 village sites, as well as new subdivision sites above the village, Chamberlin said.

However, Liu said there are no plans or funds for the village site because there are more than 16 unused lots in the new subdivision.

Six new houses have been built on the hill, but some people want to live in the village, Chamberlin said. "There's a really strong interest from our people in moving home if they believe they can have new homes and drinkable water," he said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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