Scugog Island is located 20 minutes away from Durham College’s Oshawa campus, but while we can drink the water that comes out of our taps, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, cannot.
“There shouldn’t be more than one standard of water for people to drinking,” Desmond Versammy, Overall Responsible Operator (ORO) for the Water Supply System on the reserve, says. “People are people.”
There are 81 long-term water advisories in Canada currently according to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC- which is being renamed to Indigenous Services Canada). Others quote this number higher at 153 water advisories, keeping in mind that many of these places have multiple advisories and short-term advisories.
Scugog has 4 long-term drinking water advisories.
The federal government is investing $4.3 million dollars to end the years of drinking water advisories. With this money, along $2.3 million being contributed by the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation and an additional $4.6 million from the Small Communities Funds, the Scugog Island reserve will be getting a water treatment plant.
In total, the water treatment plant is an $11.2 million project.
“They require a significant amount of money,” Versammy says. Went to school for engineering and has spent his career consulting on similar water management projects including water treatment, distribution and waste removal. He has more than 30 years of experience in his field.
Versammy was brought on in 2014 as ORO for the water supply system on the reserve to help resolve the water issues on the reserve.
For ten years, the reserve has been gripped by a drinking water advisories. Most of the homes are on well water with 15 homes on smaller water treatment sheds.
Even houses on the water treatment sheds are on the drinking water advisory.
To better understand the issues surrounding the water around Scugog, it’s essential to look back in time.
Back in the 1700’s, The Mississauga’s First Nations lived on the shores of Scugog Island. There were two rivers that branched off around the island and a small, shallow lake. The lake was so small and shallow that on early maps of the area it was left out complete.
From the shallow waters, the Mississaugas harvested wild rice and the land around was good for living. Along with the wild rice, there was a cranberry patch and lots of wetland vegetation. There is evidence that large number of deer populated the area making it ideal for hunting.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that those things changed.
Settlers came and drove the Mississaugas off to turn the land into farmland. Farming was good on the shore until a dam was built for a local mill.
The Purdy dam, named after the brothers who had it built, had no lock gates so there was no way to control the water flow which raised the water level to four feet.
William Purdy described the area before the dam in Scugog and its Environs.
“It was a mass of marsh and grass, the only clear water being that in the channel followed by the scow.”
A scow is a type of boat they would have used as transportation on Scugog lake.
While this was perfect for the people in Lindsay where the dam was built, it caused havoc on the local eco-system.
In 1927, F. G. Weir, the author of Scugog and its Environs, wrote, “The large tamarac forest that stood at the south of Scugog Island, said to have been at one time, a place of frequented by herds of deer, was killed off, exposing the marshy swamp as it appears today.”
Unfortunately, for the people living around the lake, that meant their properties were submerged and the stagnant water caused illness. A North American version of malaria spread by the mosquitoes that thrived on change in water and typhoid fever, caused by drinking contaminated water, was ripping through households.
In 1934, Samuel Farmer, the author of On the Shores of Scugog, wrote, “There was scarcely a home that did not have its case of typhoid fever, malarial fever and argue.”
Finally, enough was enough for the locals. In 1841, A group of young men decided to head over to Lindsay and take down the dam themselves after petitioning the government was getting them nowhere.
“Needless to say it was not the Lindsay delegation that lowered the dam,” Farmer wrote, “that was the work of the government.”
The people in Lindsay caught word of this and held a meeting. For them, the dam was an economic advantage so to take that away would have devastated them. After a militia was formed to greet them, they resolved the situation peacefully and agreed due to the intervention of the government, to lowered the water by two feet.
Even that didn’t please everyone in Scugog. In 1882, the editor of the Observer wrote, “Lower it, by all means lower it. Demolish the dam. How long are we to have thousands of acres of land submerged so that a mill in Lindsay might be kept running?”
In 1844 the Purdy was replaced with a newer dam that had a lock system to better control the water. It’s the dam that stands in Lindsay today.
In 1847, the Mississaugas came back to a different land. Forced to farm on the rocky shores, they no longer thrived like they once had. They stuck it out making a living off hunting and eventually by getting city jobs. Along the way, they were threatened by extinction due to residential schools, under funding, the 60’s scoop and other obstacles put in the way by the Canadian government.
In the 1930’s, Scugog became a tourist spot thanks to it being a good fishing spot and the beautiful lakeshore. The towns around started to thrive from the economic boast tourists brought.
Port Perry and Scugog Island are doing better financially, the lake itself is facing issues.
Scugog Lake has always been shallow but with the years of run off and the fact that it’s a eutrophic lake. A eutrophic lake is shallow and will eventually fill in. Its aquatic life is a hot bed for plants, fish and algae. Scugog Lake is currently facing problems with run-off and sediment which is quickly filling in the lake.
With the run-off that’s filling in the lake only brings in fertilizer. Fertilizer helps plants grow, including aqua marine plant life like the plant that growing in abundance and suffocating the lake.
Most of the island is on septic tanks and wells since the lake water is not viable for drinking. Because of the large amount of run-off and the septic tanks that could possible leak, it was better to go with ground water residents were already pulling from.
The same ground water that has kept the Mississauga’s First Nations on a drinking water advisory since 2008.
The water itself is currently safe to drink, it’s the fear that the water will become contaminated that it’s been put in place.
“One of the first things we did, one of the first projects I took on was a feasibility study,” Versammy says. “Basically, we identify where we are, we characterise the water, we characterise the quality of the water, and we come up with a plan on how to do that.”
The process took six to seven months to complete as they got INAC and Health Canada for reviews and feedback.
“The recommendation, obviously was to design and construct a community water treatment plant and build it and put a distribution system… to service the community,” Versammy says. “It’s easier said than done.”
By the end of the project, the goal is to not only have a water treatment plant up and running, but to hook residents up to the waste management system that the Great Blue Heron Casino is on.
Right now, they’re in the process of designing the facility and by the end of January they want to hand off to INAC for review.
In the spring of 2018, they are expecting to be able to start construction.
“Our plant, likely, most likely, will come on probably January, February of 2019.” Versammy says.
That will be one of the 81 long-term water advisories on reserves taken off the list.
Justin Trudeau made a commitment to eliminate drinking water advisories in March of 2021 in 2015 and has so far taken 24 off the list.
That number is expected to be 68 by the end of the year.