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Construction expected this spring for Oneida Nation of the Thames water pipeline

A sign on the perimeter of Oneida Nation of the Thames in Ontario. Declan Keogh/Ryerson University

Local and federal officials are cautiously optimistic construction will be underway this spring for a water pipeline to serve the Oneida Nation of the Thames in southwestern Ontario.

The pipeline, still in the design phase, is expected to be 18 kilometres long and connect the First Nation community with clean drinking water through the Lake Huron Water Supply System.

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Currently, Oneida’s drinking water is sourced from the Thames River, unlike neighbouring non-Indigenous communities, which source their supply from either Lake Erie or Lake Huron.

Federal Minister for Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu told Global News on Monday that the government has the money to help fund communities like Oneida to get clean drinking water.

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Brandon Doxtator, an elected councillor for the Oneida Nation of the Thames, says the most recent words from the government bring “concerned optimism” to the community.

“The commitment to funding and working with the Nation I think gave our community some relief,” said Doxtator to Global News.

“There was a lot of uncertainty moving forward.”

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Oneida has been under an official boil-water advisory since 2019, with a long-term advisory added in 2020. The ongoing advisory affects 546 homes and 22 community buildings.

Doxtator says the Oneida community needs $54 million in funding to address both “quantity and quality” issues in the territory.

“We’ve been in this situation for (more than) three years and a lot of members are fed up and frustrated with the boil water advisory,” added Doxtator.

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While Federal Minister for Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu says the $54 million is an Oneida-specific dollar figure, the Canadian government has funding for all Indigenous communities affected by a boil-water advisory.

“The government of Canada has booked and put aside enough money to be able to have the financial resources to support communities to do this hard work,” Hajdu told Global News.

However, no specifics on the dollar figure the federal government would provide were shared.

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Doxtator noted that the government has not yet committed to fully funding the fix to the water issue.

Along with the boil-water advisory, another water-related issue for Oneida is its fire flow issue.

A little over six years ago, a father and his four young children were killed in a house fire.

“First Nations are 10 times more likely to be caught in a fire on a reserve and die in a fire than non-Indigenous people off reserve,” said Doxtator.

“Without that critical infrastructure, I can’t in good faith and good conscience allow that to go forward.”

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Last month, officials with Oneida declared a state of emergency due to “all-time low water” levels for the community. The low-water levels meant residents were asked to conserve water as much as possible.

The conserve water notice was lifted less than two weeks ago, but the state of emergency and boil advisory remained.

Short-term solutions were used during the water conservation advisory, including water deliveries that reportedly came from a private water company in Kitchener, something Oneida’s chief said would cost taxpayers upwards of $20,000 per day.

The Trudeau government promised to end all long-term boil water advisories when it was first elected in 2015. So far, 137 advisories have ended, but there are still 33 active in 27 communities.

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Hajdu says while the money is set aside for the communities, there is no “one-size fits all” solution, which means many problems take years to resolve.

“I’m confident that we’ll be able to support Oneida of the Thames to get that solution in place quickly so that their leadership can assure their residents that when they turn on their tap water is drinkable,” says Hajdu.

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