Water First’s new internship program gives next generation of Indigenous water treatment operators’ skills to support their community

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Anishinabek Nation celebrated the graduation of 14 interns from the Georgian Bay Drinking Water Internship Program recently. In association with the Ontario Water First Education & Training Inc. and Waabnoong Bemjiwang Association of First Nations (WBAFN), Gezhtoojig Employment & Training, the paid internship program started in June 2021. It offers great opportunity as it recruits young Indigenous adults to be in the drinking water treatment industry. The program gives students the knowledge and experience to obtain entry-level certifications required to begin careers in water treatment. Through the skills they obtain in this internship program, students become qualified personnel, supporting communities much like our own, on the the unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa peoples and the land chosen as home by the Métis peoples of B.C., in having access to safe, clean drinking water for the foreseeable future.

“Clean and safe drinking water is very important and a must for our communities,” said Theresa Teddy, executive director, Waabnoong Bemjiwang Association of First Nations, in a September news release. “New technology and a new generation of trained individuals will enrich the communities and provide advancement and growth within. Congratulations to all the graduates, who have demonstrated a true dedication to learning, a passion for water, and a commitment to themselves and their communities. I know they will go on to achieve more great things.” 

Water First is a registered Canadian charity that works alongside Indigenous communities to address water challenges through education, training, and meaningful collaboration. Water First has collaborated with 66 Indigenous communities across Canada since 2009, supporting their youth and young adults to pursue careers in water science. 

Kendra Driscoll, water quality specialist at Water First, said, “The drinking water internship program not only supports interns in building the skills to become water treatment plant operators, it also gives them exposure to water science as a whole and opens an entire world of opportunity. It’s been so rewarding to work with the Georgian Bay interns and see their skills and confidence increase. I wish them all the best for the future and look forward to seeing them as part of the alumni network.” 

Since Water First’s program began it has seen 45 interns from 31 different First Nations communities pass their operator in training exams and work approximately 70,000 hours in various local water plants. Graduates completed a 15 month program, where they each accumulated 1,800 hours of on-the-job experience in water treatment plants. This hands-on experience was a part of the water operator in training (OIT) certification process; additional certifications included water quality analyst, the entry-level course for drinking water operators. Environmental training such as geographic information systems (GIS) and water sampling can lead to work in both drinking water treatment and the environmental water field. 

“The Water First internship program means a lot to me, because it’s given me the opportunity to become a second-generation water operator. My mother is the overall responsible operator at the Wasauksing water treatment plant, and I got to grow up watching her in the lab, doing cool stuff,” said Isaiah Tabobondung, graduate from Wasauksing First Nation. “Now I get to do everything side-by-side with her. This internship helped me understand what she does for the community.”
Having more Indigenous Peoples in this field is important because safe drinking water remains a concern for many Indigenous communities across the country. Studies show that currently, 18 per cent of First Nation communities across Canada are under a drinking water advisory. First Nations Health Authority posts a monthly drinking water advisory for B.C. In  August, 2022, there were 19 advisories in First Nation communities across our province.  

Nicole Trigg, a Radium Hot Springs resident, is the communications director for Living Lakes Canada, the water stewardship non governmental organization (NGO) founded in the Columbia Valley that delivers water-related programs across the Columbia Basin region, BC, and Canada. She shared they are in the process of developing a course of their own. While Wildsight Invermere held the workshop: The Path to Invermere’s Drinking Water in July, a discussion about the important role treatment operators play. Living Lakes partnered with Wildsight for a session on climate change and watershed security on Sept. 27.

“Living Lakes Canada fully supports this paid internship program. Providing Indigenous youth with the required certifications so they can help communities access safe, clean drinking water is a huge step forward in advancing Truth and Reconciliation, and an excellent opportunity to grow the green job sector,” Trigg said. “Increasing the number of environmental professionals working in the water sector is absolutely necessary as we continue to see examples of climate change impacts on our water supply. In fact, Living Lakes Canada is working to create a similar program. The goal of our pilot freshwater technician program is to develop professional accreditation in collaboration with respective colleges and Indigenous communities across British Columbia, and consequently build capacity in water monitoring expertise in these communities.”

Since graduating at the end of September, interns of this program have joined the Water First Alumni Network to stay engaged, build local networks and access opportunities for ongoing professional development. As well, there is ongoing support from peers.

“I’m doing this for me to have more meaningful, stable employment opportunities,” said graduate Laura Mallinson of Nipissing First Nation. “I’m doing this for my family and community, who rely on water operators on the reserve to provide safe, clean drinking water.