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Running out of water a constant fear for some on Tsuut’ina Nation

Global News logo Global News 2021-03-01 Jayme Doll
a person standing in a kitchen: Kylie Meguinis fills up only as much water as she knows she will use in her Tsuut'ina Nation home. © Global News Kylie Meguinis fills up only as much water as she knows she will use in her Tsuut'ina Nation home.

Kylie Meguinis holds a kettle under her kitchen tap. She doesn’t take her eyes off the water level or the ruler line marked on its side.

“I just put enough water that I am going to use,” she says from her Tsuut’ina Nation home.

Water rationing is a constant part of Meguinis’s life. Her home is connected to a cistern, essentially a large tank outside their house. On average, every four days a water truck comes by to fill it up but it’s not uncommon for the two families, 12 people, living in the home to run out before then.

“Running out of water is such a harsh feeling. It's so harsh, especially when you need to use the bathroom."

“It's frustrating and sad when we don't have water, I kind of get angry sometimes,” she said shaking her head. “I don't know who to aim my frustration at.”

The community only has one working water truck and one driver. Meguinis said her alarm indicating she is running low on water has been going off every second day instead of every four since the pandemic broke out.

“Since COVID started in March I ran out of water four times, just due to us being home consistently and staying home,” she said.

Read more: Lack of federal funding leaves First Nations with new plants but no access to clean water

An investigation by a consortium of universities, colleges and media companies, including Mount Royal University, MacEwan University, Global Calgary and APTN News co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ) has found that money spent by the federal government since 2015 has failed to include sufficient funding to connect homes to centralized systems on First Nations in many parts of the country.

In 2019 the federal government built a $14.2-million water treatment plant on Tsuut’ina Nation but Chief Roy Whitney-Onespot said the majority of residents still rely on wells or cistern to get their water.

“The water treatment facility was primarily for the school area, it wasn't connected to a bunch of homes,” said Whitney Onespot. “It makes it much safer for our children but we still have to overcome challenges that they have when they go home and they are drinking from a cistern.”

He added that when the new treatment plant was built in Tsuut’ina Nation there wasn’t enough money included to pipe water to every home using cisterns. He said the situation is not ideal.

“It's not a long-term fix, either.”

Connecting all homes is costly and the community is still in discussions with the federal government on the issue.

Video: Lack of federal funding leaves Manitoba First Nations with new plants but no access to clean water

Research shows this type of system is prone to contamination and doesn’t provide residents with enough water for daily needs.

According to Timothy Vogel, a University of Saskatchewan sessional lecturer and PhD candidate in civil and geological engineering, truck-to-cistern systems can become contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria during transportation and storage by truck. Health risks from using cisterns include gastrointestinal illnesses and skin issues, he said.

"It's absolutely cost saving for the federal government but in the short term. In the long term it's much more expensive because the health impacts around stomach cancers, around liver disease, around bacterial infections,” said Shirley Thompson, who has been studying the impacts of cisterns with the University of Manitoba.

Now, information uncovered by the IIJ reveals that communities where some residents rely on cisterns have experienced twice the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19.

Read more: Lack of funding for piped water on First Nations in Sask. means some on reserves can’t drink from their taps

Without further research the cause of the connection is unknown but Thompson speculated on the reason for the correlation.

“Cisterns are a leading source of contamination in First Nations. That stresses the body in all sorts of ways, and we know that people who have higher risk for infections, that have weakened immune systems, are more prone to COVID,” she said.

She added that having to ration water could be driving people out of their homes and into the community.

“Something we have to consider is that people who are running out of water are using the water taps, are going out more frequently in order to access water. And in most communities, there’s one public water tap, so they’re all accessing the same source.”

For these reasons, experts believe more focus needs to be put on moving people from cisterns to piped systems.

“This push for ending boil water advisories by the Trudeau government does not even take into consideration any of these decentralized systems,” said Rebecca Zagozewski, executive director for the Saskatchewan First Nations Water Association. “Because it costs too much. Because it’s too overwhelming of an issue.”

Meguinis spends hundreds of dollars every week on bottled water. She said her cistern has not been cleaned in years and she just doesn’t trust the water.

“As a mother, you only think, you know, how many hands has this water gone through until it gets to my children?”

Video: Broken promises: Why are some First Nations still without clean drinking water?

The IIJ tested Meguinis’s cistern water for coliforms and E. coli and the results were negative. However, academic research has found that E. coli is regularly found at unacceptable levels in cistern water.

She has a lock on her laundry room door and only allows five-minute showers every second day.

In the past six years, the Tsuut’ina Nation has issued at least 11 do not consume water advisories. The city of Calgary is literally on the horizon. She often wonders why still are so many basic needs not being met on the outskirts of a thriving city.

“You live how I live, you know, that's how I’ve felt,” Meguinis said. “Calgary is right next door; they have free flowing water whenever they want they don't have to have those worries.”

Investigative team:

Institute for Investigative Journalism:

Angela Amato, MacEwan University (fellow)

Mount Royal University

Noel Harper, Christian Kindrachuk, Georgia Longphee, Kiah Lucero, Andrea Wong, Karina Zapata (Instructor: Janice Paskey)

MacEwan University

Angela Amato, Aubrianna Snow, Nikita Case, Brittany Ekelund, Gabriel Gauthier, Benjamin Hollihan, Rudy Howell, Cecilia Lietz, Stefan Salegio, Corbin Stewart, Andy Trussler (Instructor: Steve Lillebuen)

with files from Ryan Kessler, Krista Hessey (Global News), Annie Burns-Pieper (Institute for Investigative Journalism), and Brittany Hobson (APTN News)

See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits and more information about the consortium here. Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University. For tips on this story, please contact the reporters at:


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