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First Nations water operator honoured for getting package water plant online

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As a water operator, it continues to be a challenging journey for Jonathan Riberdy of Zhiibaahaasing First Nation. But, his will to face adversity head on has earned him the 2021 National First Nations Water Leadership Award.

Established by Indigenous Services Canada, the award acknowledges demonstrated leadership and dedication to the advancement of clean and safe drinking water in First Nations communities. The winner receives a trophy, a pin, a piece of Indigenous artwork, and has $10,000 in water and wastewater industry bursaries made available in their name.

Nominations are reviewed by an advisory committee formed of First Nations partners.

The Circuit Rider Trainer Professional Association (CRTPA) is responsible for administering the bursaries and more information is available on the CRTPA website, including an application form.

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“Teaching my knowledge to other operators is the most rewarding, knowing that I can share my knowledge,” Riberdy announced in a statement.

Riberdy is a water operator who worked tirelessly in the face of adversity to uphold high drinking water standards in his community and train young Indigenous water operators across Ontario, said federal officials. He currently serves as his community’s water supervisor, a project manager for Swim Drink Fish Canada, and as a director for the Aboriginal Water and Wastewater Association of Ontario.

Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is located on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, and has been on a long-term boil advisory for more than 30 years.

In the summer of 2019, the Zhiibaahaasing Water Treatment Plant was in danger due to winds and high water levels, explained Riberdy. In the spring of 2020, the building was deemed unsafe and the water plant was decommissioned. A state of emergency was declared by the local Chief and Council and remains in effect.

Riberdy said he worked alongside Indigenous Services Canada, First Nations Engineering Services Ltd. and BI Pure Water to get a temporary water treatment plant for Zhiibaahaasing. The plan, he explained, was to have a shipping container built as a portable package plant to ensure the community had water. A distribution line was placed in the ground to connect the package plant to the low lift station that pulls water from Lake Huron.

The package plant arrived in September 2020. Riberdy said it was imperative to have two operators on site while water was delivered via trucks to each cistern.

“The expertise and commitment of water operators like Mr. Riberdy are vital in achieving our shared goal — ensuring that all First Nations communities have access to clean drinking water and maintaining strong water and wastewater infrastructure,” announced the Minister of Indigenous Services, Patty Hajdu, in a statement.

Riberdy said that four times a year, Zhiibaahaasing elders and women take the lead in water ceremonies for clean drinking water.

“We take this time to say Miigwech (thank you) to the water for letting us have clean, drinkable, fishable and swimmable water,” he noted. “Having leadership at these ceremonies shows the commitment towards water and gives them an understanding of the water processes.”

Last year’s recipient of the National First Nations Water Leadership Award was Éric Sioui, a CRTPA coordinator from Wendake, Quebec, recognized for his leadership and for sharing his expertise with other First Nations water operators across Quebec.

The nomination period for the 2022 National First Nations Water Leadership Award will be January 3, to February 21, 2022. The nomination process is outlined on the National First Nations Water Leadership Award webpage.

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