First Nations teen solves remote community’s drinking water problems
He just graduated from high school, now this teen is running the water plant in North Spirit Lake
By Jody Porter, CBC News, May 3, 2016
A 19-year-old from North Spirit Lake First Nation is the key to solving a boil water advisory in place in his community for nearly as long as he has been alive.
The remote First Nation, about 800 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., has been under a boil water advisory for 14 years.
Now, a unique program spearheaded by the Northern Chiefs Council (Keewatinook Okimakanak), is allowing people like Quentin Rae to take the initiative and the responsibility for providing clean water in their own communities.
“I have to take care of the plant, make sure chlorine gets in the water to clean the bacteria,” said Rae with a smile during his first week on the job at the end of April.
“I just graduated last year and they gave me the job.”
The high school diploma is the prerequisite for the training provided by Northern Chiefs Council that will provide Rae with his operator certificate. Once the water plant in North Spirit Lake has a certified operator, the boil water advisory can be lifted.
But the program goes beyond the training.
“The supports have to be there,” said Barry Strachan, the council’s public works manager.
“You think about a 19-year-old like Quentin having the safety of every member of this community on him — we can’t let him do that alone, we need to support him.”
The support comes in the form of a high-tech monitoring system installed in five remote First Nations in 2015. It provides Strachan up-to-the-second updates on water quality, sent to his office in Dryden, Ont. He can then help the local technicians work through the problem over the phone.
“We want the community to own and fix the problems,” Strachan said.
“The best way to build the confidence in their own ability to run these systems is to let them do it and support them while they are.”
Strachan admits First Nations need sound infrastructure in place first, before the monitoring and training system will work. The program has already resulted in removing boil water advisories in three other northern Ontario First Nations.
Meanwhile, community leaders in North Spirit Lake are pleased to be able to offer new opportunities to the young people.
“That young fella, he just graduated from Grade 12 and we gave him an opportunity and he jumped at it,” said deputy chief Donald Campbell.
“I think he’s very excited and he’ll be a good asset for our community as he grows and learns.”
Rae expects to complete his training for his certificate in June.
“It feels all right,” he said. “I’m happy.”
But Rae laughs when asked whether he sees the opportunity as a “job for life.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s my first job ever.”