All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The environment and Attawapiskat

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Another great article from reporter Chelsea Vowel, in today’s HuffingtonPost, on the roots of the problems in Attawapiskat – and environmental problems have played a huge role in the making of the crisis.  (A good background to the story can be found here.)

Vowel writes in her usual acerbic vein, which of course paints Harper’s tories, and the manager they imposed, Jacques Marion, in a particularly bad light.  I don’t know enough of the details to pass judgment, but based on other reporting, Vowel seems bang on in denouncing the crisis.  This is particularly galling given that the same tories have cut funding to the only agency that had any effectiveness in at least documenting the extent of the health crisis in Aboriginal communities.  The whole article, here, is well worth reading.

And, even if the HuffPost is (rightly) criticized for getting a free ride on the work of others (it doesn’t pay most of its writers), at least it offers a tribune to voices that don’t get a hearing in the traditional media.  If only for articles like this one, I’ll keep reading the HuffPost (my other favourite source for a different viewpoint is Al Jazeera, by the way).

What caught my eye, though, is the extent of the environmental injury that the community of Attawapiskat has had to put up with.  Vowel lists the main problems:

I have been telling everyone that the way to get out of our economic mess, in Canada, is to push for green jobs.  What would that look like in Attawapiskat?

It would need to be well done, of course, and run by the community itself – much, if not all, of the problems in Attawapiskat have been inflicted on the community by outside impacts.  But the potential is obvious that, if working solutions can be implemented for Attawapiskat, they can be implemented across the country, for the benefit of all.

Let’s start with sewage (this is the poo blog, after all!).  Attawapiskat’s treatment plant is a class III primary facility treating over 2000 cubic metres of sewage per day.  Yet many members of the community are not connected to the system and can get rid of their waste only ion the most primitive, chamber pot manner.  And then there was the horrid sewage back-up.

I haven’t seen the details of the design, let alone been there, but it seems that the design is woefully inappropriate: a large and complex concrete facility based on urban concepts in a northern community with cold temperatures and a rural setting.  Instead of a costly traditional network of sewers, it would seem that local treatment may work better.  I don’t know what that could be: a mix of septic and infiltration fields; waterless systems; composting toilets; even methane generators.  Each of those has its own set of problems – but surely adapting them with a bit of ingenious design would be better than aping a costly, urban-style, hard engineering approach.

There are also huge problems of historic contamination: those mentioned above, which are mostly from oil spills, and the problems not on the above list but all too common on northern reserves: mold spores in indoor air.  Both lead to unhealthy conditions, and both are linked to energy supply.

Most northern communities get their power from diesel generators; they are usually too far to be connected to the provincial grid.  These generators (often old and inefficient) pollute the local air and generate greenhouse gases, when they don’t either breakdown or cause an oil spill.

The cost of running these old generators is awful, as well.  It is now clear that new energy sources (whether wind or solar) are much cheaper in the long run.  And, remember the sewage issue?  Even methane generation could play a role.  It’s actually very difficult to understand why these technologies are not implemented on a wide-scale throughout the north: the only difficulty is the initial financing, but interest rates are at a rock-bottom low. All that would be needed is a well-designed federal program.

Imagine the scenario: alternative energy and waste management arrive at Attawpiskat.   The community benefits from large-scale technology transfer.  It then serves as a model for other communities, and several residents of Attawapiskat are now employed all over northern Canada as builders, trainers, and engineers.  The sky’s the limit!

Several people use Attawapiskat as an example of all that is wrong with our management of northern communities, especially First Nations’.  And, yes, as Vowel does with her wonderful acid style, some fingers need to be pointed.  But I prefer to look at Attawapiskat as an opportunity and an example of what could be.


2 Responses

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  1. […] this, paradoxically, may well point to the solution.  From Attawapiskat to Idle No More, First Nations are making it clear that they’re no longer passive victims.  […]

  2. […] Canada is much better, and it is.  Until you look at water issues on First Nations reserves like Attawapiskat.  We still have work to […]

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