Guelph Grads on the Go – Ensuring Safe Drinking Water in First Nation Communities

Jamie Lafontaine says community education is key to promoting public health

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Ensuring safe drinking water for First Nation Communities, glass of water

While health is generally a provincial matter in Canada, improving the health of Aboriginal peoples is a shared undertaking between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, and First Nations and Inuit partners. Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch supports the delivery of public health and health promotion services on-reserve and in Inuit communities. University of Guelph graduate Jamie Lafontaine has been working in this branch, in the Environmental Public Health Division as a program manager, since 2003.

Currently, Lafontaine is responsible for drinking water and wastewater regulations in First Nations communities. He played a lead role in developing the safe drinking water legislation that recently received Royal Assent (the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act), in collaboration with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Lafontaine says the Act is necessary because while there has been considerable investment and capacity-building to help ensure safe drinking water for the people in those communities, there was previously no regulatory basis for the programs. If communities had problems, there were no regulations to enforce any needed change.

“Typically, the communities already have a system of piped water and water treatment. This new Act now gives First Nations communities the same protections when it comes to drinking water as other off-reserve communities,” Lafontaine says.

To develop the Act, Lafontaine, in collaboration with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development staff, met with First Nations leaders and organizations across Canada, as well as others in the provincial and territorial governments, to ensure everyone had an opportunity to provide input and feedback. With the legislation passed, Lafontaine is now participating in a series of consultations with First Nations groups to discuss the development of regulations under the Act and how it will be phased in.

“Many communities have been concerned that the regulations will be implemented immediately, and they won’t be able to comply,” says Lafontaine. “We reassure them that it will be phased in, and that we will work with them to ensure that compliance is possible.”

Guelph grad Jamie Lafontaine on Canada's Parliament Hill

Jamie Lafontaine, right, on Parliament Hill for the reading of Bill S-8, now the Safe Drinking Act for First Nations Act.

His work on this and previous projects was recognized in 2014 with a Deputy Minister Award for Excellence.

Lafontaine grew up in Kemptville, Ont., and decided to attend the University of Guelph after he fell in love with the campus. After earning a B.Sc. in Biology, he taught English for a year in South Korea and was then hired by the Environmental Public Health Division in 2003. Six months later, he became a program manager.

His first area of responsibility was working on developing a project to detect and prevent the West Nile virus in First Nation communities. In all his projects, community education is an important component for promoting health.

“Health promotion activities provide First Nations communities with information about important steps they can take to protect their health, whether it’s related to changes in traditional food practices or personal protection measures against mosquitos.”

In April 2011, Lafontaine was seconded to the World Health Organization (WHO) for 18 months as a technical officer, Water, Sanitation and Health. Although still based in Ottawa, he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, every other month and attended meetings in locations around the world. He managed and coordinated two international networks, and led the development of a risk assessment tool for small communities to use in developing water safety plans.

“The challenges at the international level can be huge, but the work was very rewarding,” he says.

His work so far has provided many opportunities to travel and be exposed to different cultures and perspectives, something he loves. He’s also seen much of Canada, including the Far North.

Lafontaine recalls a meeting with First Nations representatives in B.C. where “we were having some difficult conversations.” An Elder spoke up to say how much things had improved in the community since his childhood, and expressed how much he appreciated the work Lafontaine and his associates were doing.

“We have a long way to go in some ways,” says Lafontaine. “But hearing that Elder speak made me feel that we are making a difference for people.”