It was something you drank

Water Confidential: Witnessing Justice Denied – The Fight for Safe Drinking Water in Indigenous and Rural Communities in Canada
by Susan Blacklin

Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2024
$24.95  /  9781773861319

Reviewed by Wendy Burton


Part memoir and part call to action, Water Confidential provides a history lesson, a template for action, and cautions for water protectors in Canada.

Susan Blacklin writes an account of decades of work to bring safe drinking water to First Nations (the term she uses) communities and remote rural, mainly farming, communities in western Canada, especially Saskatchewan and Alberta.

This is a whistleblowers’ account of the efforts to develop integrated biological and reverse osmosis membrane (IBROM) treatment processes to First Nations communities in Canada from the late 1990s to the present, to train operators to manage the water treatment facilities, to install as many IBROM as possible in communities with persistent boil water advisories. And to educate the public about water quality issues in First Nations reserves in Canada. The poster child for the IBROM is the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan, which has had this system since 2004.

The hero, one of the heroes, of the story is Hans Peterson, former husband and colleague of Blacklin, whom she affectionately describes as a ‘mad’ scientist. Together, these two, with many others diligently acknowledged, tackled the problem of unsafe water in so many First Nations in Canada, many of whom have had undrinkable water for generations. Peterson set out to not only tackle the problem and solve it but also to take on the barriers to solutions, many of which are described in damning detail.

And what a heroes’ journey. While Hans might have been the brains, Susan was the brawn of the organization, running the admin side of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) while managing home and hearth (frequently in need of wood), the bearing and raising of children, a farm in rural Saskatchewan beset by winter and a faltering water system, and a side gig breeding and selling Old English Sheepdogs, and recovering from a catastrophic brain injury.

It’s quite a story, and Blacklin tells it well. Child of ‘stiff upper lip’ Brits, Blacklin tends to glide over events that – each one – could be many more words than she provides. Her purpose here is not so much to tell her story as the story of the often-thwarted efforts to build safe water systems for First Nations. She acknowledges her conflicted soul; she is proud of Hans and the work but is at times bitter about the personal cost. “I loved salvaging any part of his caring soul,” she advises, as she describes his tendencies to purchase and hoard equipment and supplies ‘just in case,’ his “scrambling,” and his persistent choice to place work above family. She always positions her unhappiness against the ongoing horror stories in communities with unsafe drinking water, to remind the reader what is truly important.

The enemies, and these are her words and the words of the late Hans Peterson – he died in 2018 – are federal and provincial regulators, INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canda now Indigenous Services Canada), consultant engineers, incompetence and indifference. She names names, provides dates, details, conclusions about why, as many ask, why still no safe drinking water for communities under persistent Boil Water Advisory. Why the persistent high levels of still birth, infant mortality, kidney disease, heart problems, skin diseases, and cancers? Why is this answered with unflinching explanations?

Blacklin makes no effort, deliberately, to provide the other side, to soften her rhetoric, to be political in her account. She knows where the blame lies, as did Hans Peterson, his colleagues, and the water protection advocates who side with them. Because make no mistake, Blacklin names the sides and defies the reader to be anywhere else but on theirs.

When they explained their contaminated drinking water concerns, the government department responsible pulled out excuse number nineteen, or perhaps number thirteen, from a hat and blamed it on a farmer, or justified it as being naturally occurring. I never once heard a government agency give a reasonable response.

This is not an easy or entertaining read. The details, the acronyms, the timelines all require full attention. The who did what when (or in most cases who did nothing) is essential if one wishes to continue asking all levels of government why safe drinking water is still unavailable in so many First Nations communities in Canada. This book is a history lesson, required reading for those who come late to the struggle and wonder why nothing has been done.

Much of the effort to provide improved water treatment on First Nations reserves led to a commitment to the First Nations lead struggles with INAC and Health Canada to improve water testing and treatment on reserves. In this struggle, Hans Peterson and Susan Blacklin acted as advocates and allies, their commitment an example of what reconciliation could be. This memoir recounts what being an ally to Indigenous peoples in Canada looks like in the trenches, and in the case of Hans and Susan Peterson, (and children) quite literally.

Susan Blacklin was born in London, England, lived much of her life with her late ex-husband Dr. Hans Peterson in Saskatchewan, and has retired to Vancouver Island.

Blacklin is meticulous about naming those who deserve credit for what success the Safe Water Drinking Foundation achieved. She is as generous with her appreciation as she is with her negative attributions.

Her story is also self-reflective. We come to know Hans Peterson in all his aspects and to a lesser extent Blacklin. This isn’t a tell-all memoir, but it is unequivocal on matters relevant to the cause.

I wish for more about her life as the wife and comrade of such a man in such a campaign. Campaign as in war. She is very much a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ writer of memoir, so if the reader is looking for the gory details of her son’s attempt to provide her with a soothing hot bath upon her return from gall bladder surgery or the effort of her neighbours and her children to ‘save the algae’, one will have to look further, or maybe visit Blacklin in her therapy garden on Vancouver Island for a cuppa and a natter. She has lots more to tell, I believe.

The book contains interleaved black and white photographs, seven appendices including a template for successful water treatment projects, a list of communities with IBROM systems, a list of governments responsible, an educator’s guide, and book club questions. All of Hans Peterson’s scientific papers can be found on her website.

For activists determined to continue the efforts to bring clean water to First Nations communities, and to continue to pressure federal agencies and politicians, this book is a guide, a cautionary tale, and a template. Reading it, one comes to know what has happened, what continues to happen, and several road maps for future actions.

Blacklin continues to be an activist. Her website provides templates for action and includes on its front page the letter she sent to Health Canada in February 2024, and the ubiquitous response. She commits to donating all royalties from the sale of Water Confidential to Safe Drinking Water Foundation and the Keepers of the Water. She calls for two inquiries: “into the distribution of funds by the Saskatchewan First Nations Water Association, and into all engineering contracts awarded with the intent to provide safe drinking water to Neskantaga First Nation, the community with Canada’s longest standing Boil Water Advisory of twenty-eight years.”

“Now I knew, and the more I knew the more compelled I was to act, to do my best to right each wrong,” Blacklin tells us. After reading Water Confidential, the reader will also know.

Susan Blacklin spoke at a book event in Winnipeg on May 24, 2024


Wendy Burton

Wendy Burton is Professor Emerita at University of the Fraser Valley, where she taught academic and work place writing, story-telling, diversity education, and educating for social justice. Throughout her work life, she wrote creative non-fiction, long and short form fiction, and poetry. Her debut novel Ivy’s Tree was published by Thistledown Press in September 2020. The first two chapters of her current project, Millicent, are published in Embark (October 2020). “Swimming in the Dark,” the creative nonfiction account of her effort to qualify to swim the English Channel was published in FolkLife in October 2020. This essay was awarded Gold, BC Story of the year by Alberta Magazine Publishers Association in 2021. “Meditations on The Headstand: Life in a (fat) body” is in FolkLife Winter 2023. The first draft of Millicent, the fictionalised account of her great-great-grandmother’s life in London’s East End in the 1850s, earned her a Letter of Distinction from Humber College Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing in 2020. Millicent is currently being considered for publication by a Canadian independent press. (Editor’s note: Wendy Burton recently reviewed Tara Teng’s book Your Body is a Revolution.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction and poetry)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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