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  • Anita Ledoux

Mistawasis Nêhiyawak

An Exploration of the Source Water Protection for Mistawasis Nêhiyawak

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Executive Summary

This case examines the development of a source water protection plan on Mistawasis Nêhiyawk First Nations and the resulting implementation of the Source Water Protection Plan. The data for this case relies heavily of four personal interviews which can be read in summary in Appendix 3. This case is part of a larger body of research exploring best management practices in water management in Saskatchewan and seeks to understand and identify best management practices. This case follows the progression of events starting in 2006 when several years of above average snow and rainfall flooded Mistawasis Nêhiyawk.

The natural disaster led to a series of partnerships and the eventual creation of a Source Water Protection Plan for the First Nation. Observing Mistawasis Nêhiyawk’s process for source water protection reveals key lessons that can inform best practices. The First Nation was able to leverage partnerships to accomplish water protection goals which increased the Mistawasis’ institutional capacity. Also, signing the Framework Agreement seems to have given the Fist Nation the right amount of legal latitude to protect its water. The agreement gives the First Nation more autonomy over its respective lands and prerogative to write its own Land Code that reflects its priorities- in this case, protecting source water. Finally, the Protection Plan itself allowed the First Nation the focus to make several changes to protect their source water. These include changes in managing the reverse osmosis plant and changes to the agricultural practices that are allowed within Mistawais Nêhiyawk territory.


Chief Mistawasis signed Treaty 6 on August 23, 1876, at Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan. In May 17, 1889, 77 square miles of land was set aside for the use and benefit of members of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak. In the past, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak utilized its land base for agriculture, fishing, hunting, fur trapping, silviculture, logging, herbs and craft materials (Mistawasis Nêhiyawak Strategic Plan July 2017 – April 2021).

Mistawasis Nêhiyawak is located 100 kilometres west of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, 150 kilometres north of Saskatoon and 150 kilometres east of North Battleford. There is a total of twelve (12) reserves set aside for Mistawasis Nêhiyawak (Mistawasis Nêhiyawak Strategic Plan July 2017 – April 2021). Mistawasis Nêhiyawak is situated along the transitional zone of the Boreal Forest and borders both the R.M. of Leask and the R.M of Canwood respectively. The reserve has numerous lakes and seasonal, permanent and temporary wetlands. The Mistawasis creek runs through Mistawasis Nêhiyawak and eventually drains into the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert.

Mistawasis Nêhiyawak lies within the North Saskatchewan River Basin and forms part of the North Saskatchewan River Watershed. The watershed (or basin) is made up of seven physiogeographic regions (Map 1).

Map 1: North Saskatchewan River Watershed First Nations Map. Source: filedriver/First_Nation_Lands_Large.pdf

Most of the watershed is covered by the Saskatchewan River Plain and the Missouri Couteau Uplands. The plain areas, including the Snipe Lake Plain and the Manitoba Saskatchewan Lowlands, demonstrate some topographic variety with ground moraine, lake plains, river valleys, spillways and other minor landforms. The Missouri Couteau, along with the Neutral and Senlac Hills and Saskatchewan Uplands provide a series of hilly landscapes along the northern, western and southern edges of the watershed.

There are over 1.6 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous, making up 4.9 per cent of the national population, namely the First Nations, Inuit and Metis1 with unique cultures and histories.

The population of Mistwasis has increased from 557 in 2001 to 681 in 2016 and has fluctuated in between with 2006 showing a high at 968 (Figure 1).

Most of the population of Mistawasis is engaged in education, public administration and mining (Figure 2).

The household income of Mistawasis community largely falls between the 60-79K bracket (20%), 30-39 K (25%), and between 0-4 K (25%) (Figure 3).

Figure 1: Population of Mitswasis (2017) Source: Statscan, 2017

Most of the population of Mistawasis is engaged in education, public administration and mining (Figure 2).

The household income of Mistawasis community largely falls between the 60-79K bracket (20%), 30-39 K (25%), and between 0-4 K (25%) (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Labor Force by Industry Source: Statscan, 2017

Figure 3: Household Income Source: Statscan, 2017

The climate is depicted by rainfall (Figure 4) and temperature (Figure 5). The highest rainfall falls in July at 106.3 mm and most of the rainfall falls in between May and September.

Figure 4: Average Rainfall Source: Statscan, 2017
Figure 4: Average Temperature Source: Statscan, 2017

In what is now Saskatchewan, treaties between the Government of Canada, and several Indigenous tribes codified the governing relationship between Indigenous people and the Government of Canada. From 1871 to 1906 treaties 2,4,5,6,8, and 10 were signed subsequent to the establishment of the Province in 1905 (Poelzer & Coates, 2015). Through the treaty signing process, the Indigenous communities agreed to share land peacefully in exchange for certain goods from the Canadian Government including health care and education. The ensuing relationship between the Indigenous population and the Government of Canada is beyond the scope of this case but suffice it to note that this distinct history created a unique framework of legislation for Indigenous communities presently.

As with most First Nations in Canada, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak was historically legislated by the Indian Act, a federally implemented Act that determined the relationship between First Nations communities and its members with the Federal Government of Canada. Under the Act, the Federal Government determined the funds allocated to each First Nation based on its membership size and land size. The leadership of the First Nation determined how the money was spent on each department for the reserve. Under the Indian Act, Indian lands are ultimately held in trust by the crown and Indigenous self-governance is often limited.

In the course of time, however, new arrangements between Indigenous communities and the Federal Government have emerged. The Federal Government developed what is called the ‘Framework Agreement’ which is a government-to-government agreement under the First Nations Lands Management Act. This agreement is an opportunity for First Nations to “opt out” of the Indian Act and independently exercise control and jurisdiction over their lands.

In 2013, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak signed a Framework Agreement with the Federal Government. As part of the Agreement, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak is to develop their own Land Code that reflects its laws, priorities and traditions (Author’s Land Code Advisory Notes. 2017). The Land Code was ratified in 2016 by the community of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak and leadership is working with an advisory committee and the Lands Department to develop the Code.

Water System

The community has five water treatment plants at various locations throughout the First Nation. There are 178 houses on the First Nation and 123 of those houses are connected to the water distribution system supplied by the treatment plants. Water that is treated at any of the five treatment facilities are piped to homes, businesses and community buildings throughout Mistawasis Nêhiyawak.

The water treatment plants utilize reverse osmosis (RO) as a way of water treatment. RO is a water treatment method that forces the water through an extremely fine membrane to remove dissolved minerals. The purified water passes through the membrane and collects in a storage container. The impassable minerals are then flushed away as waste. RO reverses the flow of water in a natural process of osmosis so that water passes from a more concentrated solution to a more dilute solution through a semi-permeable membrane. Pre- and post-filters are often incorporated along with the reverse osmosis membrane itself (CDC, 2021).

There are 32 cisterns on the First Nations that receive water from a water truck delivery system. The reason for this is these 32 homes are distant from the main core of the First Nation and the cost of expanding the pipeline is prohibitive. The water truck delivery system transports water from one of the water treatment facilities to the cisterns. The water transport truck is tested and treated daily to ensure the water is not contaminated when it leaves the plant for delivery. In addition to the water treatment facilities water truck delivery system, there are five private wells and five community wells that provide source drinking water to community members.

Several attempts were made to arrange an interview with the Public Works Director; however, the endeavour was unsuccessful. It would have very valuable for the case study to have updated information on the service areas.

Timeline of Flood Event

In 2006, the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and parts of Manitoba, experienced high levels of precipitation during the winter and higher than normal rainfalls during the spring, summer, fall seasons. This above average “wet cycle” lasted for approximately a five-year period which included heavy summer rains and heavy winter snowfalls. Mistawasis Nêhiyawak as well as many other areas throughout the prairie provinces, experienced record flooding as water levels continued to rise.

Within the community of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, infrastructure, houses built-in low-lying areas, and basements were flooded and damaged. The damage from the spring flood was long-lasting. Some houses were unsalvageable and required demolition. Many roads were submersed in water. In some areas, roads were washed away, and lowlands were flooded with standing water.

In 2010, the Chief and Council made application to the Province for the Provincial Disaster Assistance Program. As per the application, the floods on Mistawasis Nêhiyawak were designated as a natural disaster and Mistawasis Nêhiyawak received funding from the program to address the initial clean up and to restore road infrastructure to functionality.

In 2011, leadership requested a full investigation of the flood damage. Associated Engineering Ltd., a private consulting firm, was commissioned to conduct to inspect the flooded areas and provide a report back to Mistawasis Nêhiyawak. The report recommended, installing larger culverts and regular monitoring for debris and obstructions, creating drainage canals and conducting a long-term drainage study to show the areas prone to future flooding (Associated Engineering (Sask.) Ltd. 2019). To follow up with the recommendations of the first report, in 2015, Associated Engineering (Sask.) Ltd. conducted the long-term drainage study. The recommendations put forward were to drain the lakes to the pre-flood levels (Associated Engineering (Sask.) Ltd. 2015).

After careful consideration, the leadership of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak decided against the recommendation of the drainage study. Chief and Council were concerned that draining its lakes would increase the flood risks to downstream stakeholders. Draining the lakes was seen as a short-term solution that passed the flooding issues to another community.

Instead, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak leadership sought to implement a more long-term solution to the flooding issues.

Mistawasis Nêhiyawak leadership understood that solving the flooding issues would be a long-term commitment that required additional, outside stakeholder involvement and initiated collaboration with numerous agencies. With financial support from Environment Canada EcoAction Plan a committee was established to work on the long-term flooding issues.

Various agencies, the neighbouring R.M.s of Leask and Canwood representatives, the North Saskatchewan River Basin Council representatives, the Water Security Agency, Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Indigenous Services Canada, University of Saskatchewan, and the Saskatchewan Research Council, supplied cash donations, expertise, experience, in-kind contributions, and participated on the committee. The consolidated endeavour took the name Honor the Water, and numerous works were undertaken such as drainage studies, Lidar mapping, and improving the current drainage system at ‘flood vulnerable’ points throughout Mistawasis Nêhiyawak. The committee’s work proved adequate to move the fast-flowing spring melt through the areas with no build-up or back-up on to the banks of the water way (Participant #1 Interview. 2019).

Source Water Protection Plan

In 2016, the community of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak partnered with the North Saskatchewan River Basin Council, the School of Environment and Sustainability of the University of Saskatchewan. The result was a working committee that developed to explore the potential contamination risks to the source waters of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak. During this process, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak and the Working Committee signed working agreements with the University of Saskatchewan wherein students from the School could conduct various research projects on Mistawasis Nêhiyawak. One of the students from the School of Environment and Sustainability, developed a Source Water Protection Plan. “Source protection, the prevention of contaminants from entering water sources, is the first layer of defense in a m