City of Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley and Aamjiwnaang First Nation Chief Joanne Rogers exchanging flags. Photo copyright of: Sandy Waring.

By Colin Graf

AAMJIWNAANG FIRST NATION—The people of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the city that surrounds them are entering a new era of cooperation that promises to help growth and reconciliation, and guarantee clean drinking water and safe sewage disposal.

The new Cooperation Protocol with the City of Sarnia and a water and sewer agreement mark a good change for both groups, says Aamjiwnaang Chief Joanne Rogers. The agreement will help economic development in the community since it will make it clear who needs to be called at the city to discuss cost-sharing or locating infrastructure for new buildings, she explains.

This Cooperation Protocol is designed to establish a positive working relationship between the two governments based on common local interests, and promotes working together to facilitate the sharing of information, improve communications, and establish a solid foundation for future planning, according to the document’s text.

Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia are promising the Chief and Mayor will meet at least four times a year to discuss issues of common concern, and promise to resolve disagreements through negotiation rather than litigation.

Having a good relationship between the two respective parties is very important as Aamjiwnaang is one of only a handful of First Nations in Canada completely surrounded by a municipality, says Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley. Service agreements over fire, water, police, and sewage have been in place between the partners since the 1950s, but were outdated and were written in antiquated colonial language, he says.

It’s important for the Mayor, Chief, and Councillors to get to know each other personally to establish respect and trust, according to Bradley.

“It’s easy to have a good relationship when there are no problems,” he says. Personal relationships between elected officials really help when problems do arise, such as during an Idle No More blockade of a CN Rail line at Aamjiwnaang in Deccember 2012, according to Bradley. He credits the understanding between himself, former Chief Chris Plain, and Sarnia police with bringing a peaceful conclusion to that situation.

While many First Nations across Canada struggle with drinking water problems, the agreement guarantees a steady flow of safe water from Sarnia’s municipal system that draws water from Lake Huron. The Sarnia—Aamjiwnaang agreements were sponsored by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and were among only six such deals concluded across Canada from 2015-16 under the group’s First Nations–Municipal Community Infrastructure Partnership Program.

The application for the program began with a person working with the First Nation who had also worked with the City of Sarnia, according to the Federation’s website.

“This individual recognized the problems with the sharing of information, and saw it from both sides…there was a lot of uncertainty of who does what,” the website describes.

The agreement is also important as a sign of reconciliation to both communities, says Bradley.

“I’m very concerned about racism in our community that First Nations’ people face,” noted Bradley.

Another symbol of reconciliation Bradley is looking for is public recognition that Sarnia is on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe people. He hopes this declaration will be made at the opening of City Council meetings in future.

The water and sewer agreement states the city will provide fresh water and sewage services, while the First Nation will pay regular city rates for those services. Aamjiwnaang must pay for extensions to water or sewage pipes for new development. New extensions will belong to the city, but Sarnia promises to be responsible for maintenance.

Fresh water comes from a municipal water system that brings water from Lake Huron.