Last month, Jeanna Graham requested to have her water tested, out of curiosity and because she had been the community health representative on the Hay River Reserve.
On May 26, she saw the sample being taken and on June 2, she had a paper jammed in her door, saying that her water tank had tested positive for e. coli bacteria.
Apart from a sheaf of papers printed off a government of the State of Washington website in 2010 advising her how to deal with it, she was then left to her own devices.
“Whenever I would do samples as the CHR, I would get the results the next day and then go see the families to tell them their water was okay,” said Graham.
Kathleen Graham, Jeanna’s daughter who did much of the legwork over the next week, said although the test turned out to likely be a false positive, it did bring to light some glaring holes in the system.
“It makes me so worried for people who rely on the health system here,” she said. “Particularly on the reserve.”
Typically, the way it works is that the CHR, employed by the band, works with the environmental health officer, an employee of the territorial department of Health and Social Services, to collect the water and send it to the lab in Yellowknife. In this case, there was no health officer, as the one previously located in Hay River had left and the region was being covered from Yellowknife.
Dr. Maureen Mayhew, the acting deputy chief public health officer, said that in this case, the delay was with the interpretation of the results in Yellowknife, but that there was also a problem with the response closer to home.
“Putting a paper in the door was obviously insufficient,” she told The Hub. “The homeowner had a right to complain.”
Right away, the family switched to bottled water and drained their tank. After cleaning it with bleach, Kathleen sought to test the water again and encountered a whole other slew of bureaucracy to wade through.
“First the lab said I needed bottles, and that I needed to get it to the hospital in Hay River by 4 p.m. on Thursday to get the results before the weekend,” she said. “I was told the CHR had bottles, but she never answered me. Finally I got it all done, but it was a lot of running around and a lot of worry. My mum is elderly and there are small children in that house all the time.”
Kathleen was told the results had been a false positive, likely resulting from a mistake on the part of the person taking the sample. Other tanks on the reserve have been tested, she said, and no other appeared to contain the potentially-dangerous bacteria.
“This all happened on Thursday, and on Friday, the chief environmental health officer was calling me and apologizing,” she said.
Mayhew said that generally speaking, Hay River’s environmental health officer is accessible to the public at the hospital. She also said a new one will be starting in the community this week and that their first priority will be to work with the reserve to improve their partnership to ensure this sort of situation doesn’t happen again.
“It wasn’t real,” said Kathleen. “But it felt real. Imagine if it was.”