Ottawa has agreed to investigate the role of construction and engineering companies in the current water crisis in a remote Ontario First Nation, but the chief of Neskantaga First Nation said his residents will have to wait another three weeks to return home and will not be going back to clean drinking water.
Late last week, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) agreed to the community’s demand for an “immediate investigation” into the business practice of companies that worked on the water treatment system in Neskantaga — a community that’s been under a water boil advisory since 1995. An ISC spokesperson said “the scope of work for the investigation” is still being discussed with the First Nation’s chief and council and could expand to other communities.
“I was just given a report yesterday that repatriation will not happen until Dec. 2,” said Chief Chris Moonias on Wednesday. He said when community members do return, it will be to a “do not consume” advisory, meaning water can only be used for things like flushing toilets and doing laundry.
“It’s not acceptable to me at all. I’m not going to settle for that,” Chief Moonias said.
Over 250 members of Neskantaga First Nation, roughly 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, have been displaced after an oily substance was found in the water reservoir, forcing a plant shutdown that left community members without running water.
A letter from Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller, obtained by Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ), confirmed the substance was a “non-toxic mineral oil” and that the existing distribution pump in the reservoir was the source.
“(Matawa First Nations Management) is working with their environmental public health officer to discuss requirements for a flushing program and possible super chlorination of the existing distribution system and plumbing in homes,” Miller said in the letter addressed to Chief Moonias.
The letter said officials hope to have running water in the community by Nov. 12 and clean water running to the community by Dec. 11, just a month away.
The minister’s office clarified by email to Global News that it expects the 25-year water advisory could be lifted as early as Dec. 11 but that the Matawa First Nations Management Environmental Public Health Officer is responsible for issuing the recommendation to chief and council to lift the advisory.
Chief Moonias said the dates keep shifting.
“I don’t think that’s going to meet the timelines that Minister Miller has indicated,” he said. “We’re going back to the ‘do not consume’ water advisory. That’s the kind of games that are being played.”
Calls for an investigation
Amidst the evacuation, the community has called for an investigation into the firms that have been paid to fix the problems they are facing with their water system.
According to Chief Moonias, the community has long said that the design of the water distribution system has led not only to the current water crisis, but problems going back years.
“We’ve always maintained the fact that the design is flawed, the design doesn’t work and we’ve always maintained the fact that it’s something that we didn’t want to agree to,” Moonias said.
In early November, Chief Moonias said on Facebook, “the government always says they have spent $16M towards the Water Treatment Plant. The community does not get the money directly but goes towards project management, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, etc. …”
In a list of demands issued by the community, Neskantaga leadership called for “an immediate investigation into business practices of contractors, engineering companies, etc.”
“The reason why I requested it is, you know, this has been ongoing for 25 years,” Chief Moonias said. ”You don’t need a rocket scientist to question why.”
“My community members are being used as pawns,” Chief Moonias said. “Our lives are being played with.”
The First Nation issued several other demands including that running water be available 24/7 before returning to the community and that an evaluation be conducted of contributing factors to the current water and public health crisis.
Community members are currently being housed at hotels in Thunder Bay. Chief Moonias said they want to return home.
“We’re tired and we want to go home. And it’s been very difficult for my community members.”
He said in the meantime, the community members are experiencing mental health issues and have fears about rising COVID-19 case numbers in Thunder Bay. One youth was recently injured and is in hospital.
Problems date back to the ’90s
Neskantaga’s original plant was built in 1993 and had problems from the start. The boil water advisory still in effect today began just two years after construction in February 1995.
Chief Moonias said the federal government forced the “flawed” design on the community over 25 years ago.
The plant and distribution system was originally designed in 1991 by RJ Burnside & Associates Ltd. The division of that company that now works with First Nations is Neegan Burnside Ltd. Its president, Cory Jones, said that at the time, the design standards were different in Ontario, but that he believes the system received a certificate of approval from the Ministry of the Environment.
He said he is aware of the ongoing issues with the plant but does not know the nature of the problem.
“Given the seriousness of the longstanding problems faced by the community, these concerns definitely warrant further investigation,” Jones said, adding that his company would be willing to participate.
Kingdom Construction Ltd. (KCL) based in Ayr, Ont., was hired to construct the upgrades to the water treatment plant but the community terminated the contract and KCL left the job site in February 2019.
The chief and lawyers for the community said they are unable to comment on the reasons for the termination of the contract because it is currently part of ongoing litigation.
Pursuant to the contract, the parties involved are meant to work matters out through binding arbitration which is a process overseen by an arbitrator rather than through the courts. The minister’s office also declined to comment on the reasons for the termination.
“It’s ongoing. There’s been no resolution and we’re moving forward through the process,” said Evan Juurakko of Eriksons LLP, a lawyer for the community.
Gerald Landry, president of Kingdom Construction, said he didn’t know why the community was calling for an investigation. “I think it’s a distraction myself.”
He said at the time of his company’s termination, it was five or six weeks away from completing the project. Nearly two years later, he said he still doesn’t know why the company was asked to leave.
“Kingdom are experts in the water and wastewater field. We’re not beginners and we’re not fly-by-night companies working out of our garage,” Landry said. “There was numerous design problems throughout the project, that ended up delaying the project.”
JR Cousin Consultants Ltd. was hired to design upgrades to the system but declined comment due to ongoing legal proceedings.
Razar Contracting Services Ltd. has taken over work on the treatment plant. It also declined to comment on the investigation or its work in the community.
Neskantaga First Nation resident held a protest Tuesday outside the office of Colliers Project Leaders, which was hired in 2016 by the community to upgrade its water treatment plant. Children held up signs that read “Respect our human right.” while others chanted “fix our water.”
Colliers Project Leaders said in a statement that it respects the rights of the protesters and its “focus” remains on delivering safe drinking water to the community.
“The Neskantaga First Nation has dealt with water quality issues for many years. We are aware of the recent rally, support the right to legally protest, and share the desire to bring clean drinking water to this community,” said communications director Pamela Smith in an email.
Work was expected to be completed this fall but despite a $16.4-million total investment by Indigenous Services Canada for the upgrades to the water distribution system and wastewater collection system, the community remains unable to access clean water.
Chief Moonias said that while work on the treatment plant is complete, it requires a 14-day test which can not be done until issues with the distribution system have been solved. “It’s clogged and broken, because there’s water leaking somewhere that prevents the reservoir from coming up,” Moonias said.
“We needed a new plant, we needed a new distribution system, but right now, we are being offered band-aid solutions,” Moonias said.
Minister Marc Miller said in the Nov. 6 letter to the community Ottawa will support an investigation into contractors and engineering firms.
“We agree that this is important and would like to work with you and other communities and organizations to undertake this,” Miller said.
In an email to Global News and the IIJ, the minister’s office said Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) officials are working with Matawa First Nations Management and Neskantaga chief and council to establish the terms of reference for the investigation, noting a third party paid for by ISC will be hired to carry out the investigation.
The department will also fund an assessment of the factors that have contributed to the current water and public health crisis in the community.
Minister Miller said Indigenous Services Canada would redouble its efforts, stating that “access to safe, clean, and reliable drinking water for Neskantaga First Nation is a priority for the Government of Canada.”