The Chief of Neskantaga First Nation, which has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years, is calling for a complete “overhaul” of its water distribution system after more than 200 residents were evacuated from the community over another water crisis.
Chief Chris Moonias said elders, children, infants and people with chronic health conditions were flown out of the community to Thunder Bay, Ont., after an oily substance appeared on the surface of their water reservoir, resulting in a water shutdown that closed the school and nursing station.
He said that the federal government needs to work with the community to find a permanent solution to the water issues affecting the community for nearly three decades.
“I’ve never had access to clean drinking water and I’m 50 years old,” he said, adding that it’s had a big mental health impact. “You hate to see your relatives, your children, your future, living in this condition.
“There seems to be no end. It’s one problem after another.”
It’s the second time in just over a year that a water crisis has forced an evacuation of the community of about 240 people. Last September, the entire population was forced to leave after broken water pump left almost no water pressure in homes.
He said residents of the First Nation, which is about 450 km northeast of Thunder Bay, are being housed at two hotels. They are nervous but happy to finally have access to clean water with the turn of a tap.
But the decision to evacuate the community this time was made more difficult because of the risk of catching COVID-19.
“It’s stressful being plucked out of your house and having to come here, especially during a pandemic,” Moonias said.
Gary Quisess, a Neskantaga band councillor, said they are fighting a battle on two fronts: stopping members from coming into contact with COVID-19, while also worrying about whether community members will return to Neskantaga with clean drinking water.
“Are we going to have water when we go back? Are we going to have more disasters?” he said. “There have also been heating and plumbing issues we’ve been dealing with.”
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in a statement he was “deeply concerned” about the “health emergency” in Neskantaga and is in contact with Chief Moonias.
Indigenous Services says it will cover the costs of the evacuation and that construction of the community’s new water treatment plant is “in its final stages.”
“Indigenous Services Canada is currently funding $16.44 million for a new water treatment plant and upgrades to the water distribution system and wastewater collection system. The new water treatment plant is near completion and work is underway on the distribution system,” Miller said via twitter.
“I will work with Chief Moonias and Neskantaga on a long-term solution to restore potable water and offer my full support for immediate interim measures, including on supporting and funding the evacuation of the most vulnerable community residents.”
But Moonias said they don’t just need an upgrade but a totally new water distribution system, after several leaks were discovered on Oct. 8 that has affected the amount available to residents.
“We need a new distribution system. Right now we are being offered band-aid solutions,” Chief Moonias said. “Everything needs a complete overhaul.”
Matawa First Nations Management, which supports nine First Nations in northern Ontario, said Tuesday that it could take about 10 days to complete testing of samples collected after discovering the oily substance in the water reservoir.
Indigenous Services Canada said it is working to expedite those tests.
Quisess said the lack of access to clean water is having a devastating impact on the mental health of community, which he said has led to suicides among young people.
“Mental health issues in our community are very high,” he said. “Our community is so traumatized.”
Moonias and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler called on Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for immediate help and to finally bring an end to the water crisis.
“No water to bathe. No water to flush toilets. No water servicing homes, the nursing station, the band office, the school,” Alvin Fiddler wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister Wednesday.
“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. You are aware that remote and isolated communities are even more vulnerable to the risks of the COVID-19 virus. I reiterate — there is absolutely no access to water in this community.”
Vanessa Adams, press secretary for Minister Miller, said that efforts “have been redoubled” to address the water quality and volume issues in Neskantaga.
“We will continue to provide funding for bottled water to ensure that remaining residents of Neskantaga First Nation have continued access to safe drinking water,” Adams said in a statement.
“The construction of the community’s new water treatment plant is in its final stages. Upgrades to the waste water plant have been funded by ISC and are currently underway.
But NDP MP Charlie Angus said the community has been calling for help for decades now, saying the Trudeau government, as with past governments, has failed to address the crisis.
“This was supposed to be the poster community for Justin Trudeau’s promise to clean get clean water,” he said. “The situation is so bad now, they actually have to start mass evacuations.”
“In the middle of a pandemic, for the government to sit back and let people be so crisis stricken, they actually have to start self evacuating to get safety … it’s an appalling state of affairs in this nation,” Angus said.
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The Trudeau government had originally stated in December 2015 that the community would get a new treatment plant up and running by the spring of 2018. But a string of construction delays and equipment failures pushed the new date to March 2019.
Neskantaga residents are supposed to have access to clean water from a temporary Reverse Osmosis Unit, but it is currently broken according to a spokesperson from Matawa First Nations Management.
Peter Moonias, a former chief who was also evacuated to Thunder Bay, said that living under the country’s longest boil advisory is a reminder of Canada’s failure when it comes to upholding the human rights of First Nations people.
“At times, I wonder whether the government knows I am a human being,” Moonias said.
“Every place I go now I don’t trust the water. That’s the mentality of living in Neskantaga. You’re psychologically affected.”