After Decades of Undrinkable Water, This First Nation Now Has No Water at All

Residents of Neskantaga First Nation haven't been able to bathe or flush their toilets for nearly a week, prompting a mass evacuation.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, Canada
October 23, 2020, 3:32pm
Members of Neskantaga First Nation collect gallons of lake water
Residents who haven't evacuated from Neskantaga First Nation are collecting lake water while their taps run dry. Videos courtesy of Neskantaga First Nation and Michael Heintzman

Residents in a First Nation in northern Ontario have had “absolutely no access to water” in the community for more than three days, meaning they can’t bathe or flush toilets.

Neskantaga First Nation, a remote Oji-Cree community in northern Ontario, called a state of emergency on Tuesday and shut down its water system because an unknown oily sheen appeared on the water in the reservoir following a system reboot late Monday.

The following day, the school and nursing station were shut down, and more than 200 people have been evacuated from the community to Thunder Bay, about 430 kilometres southwest of the First Nation. Those who have stayed behind are relying on bottled water or wading through frigid waters to collect fresh lake water.

Test results that determine what the substance is are expected Friday.

According to Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias, government officials weren’t supportive when the situation was first brought to their attention on Tuesday evening.

“I am told in my meeting with government officials (Tuesday) that having no water is not a health emergency,” Moonias said in a tweet on Wednesday. Moonias added that he wished officials could see what his people were going through.

After Moonias’ tweet, Indigenous Services Canada said it would help the community.

“We are deeply concerned by the shutdown of Neskantaga’s water distribution system. We recognize that this situation is a health emergency,” ISC spokesperson, Vanessa Adams, told VICE News. Adams added the ministry will pay for evacuation efforts and is monitoring the situation closely.

“This is a health emergency crisis, plain and simple,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a public statement. Nishnawbe Aski Nation represents almost 50 First Nations, including Neskantaga.

Fiddler wrote a public letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, urging him to intervene after Indigenous Services failed to support Neskantaga evacuation efforts.

“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,” the letter says. 

“Are we not important?” Fiddler asks. “Are we not human?”

Moonias has since listed minimum demands that he says must be met before residents return to the First Nation, including running water that’s available around the clock, even if a boil water advisory persists, and a government examination of the infrastructure.

In a video taken this week and sent out by Michael Heintzman, a Nishnawbe Aski Nation spokesperson, former Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias stands at the rocky bank of a lake while he fills four empty milk gallons with lake water, which replaces the water not flowing from his taps right now.

“We’re living in a country that's very rich. Why does it have to be like this?” the former chief said.

In another video, Neskantaga resident Lawrence Sakanee, whose family evacuated earlier this week, stands next to a sign that says, “Water is life” and “Fix my water.” According to Sakanee, his family can’t return from Thunder Bay until the water is running again.

“I’m getting tired of hauling water,” said Sakanee.

Neskantaga First Nation has struggled with a boil water advisory since 1995, the longest in the country. According to boil water advisories, people should boil all water for at least one minute before use, and people who need help bathing, like babies and the elderly, shouldn’t bathe in tap water.

This is the second mass evacuation caused by a water crisis in Neskantaga in a little over a year. In September 2019, a water pump broke, leaving homes with close to no water pressure.

Kelsey Leonard, an enrolled citizen of the Shinnecock Nation and assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, told VICE News the ongoing water crisis in Neskantaga—as well as in other Indigenous communities—is a “grave injustice” and human rights violation.

Leonard, who specializes in Indigenous water governance, said Canada is violating several international agreements, including the 2010 United Nations Human Right to Water and Sanitation.

Neskantaga has faced water crises for so long that an entire generation of people under 26 have never known what it’s like to have free-flowing potable water, adequate water infrastructure, and sanitation services, Leonard said. “That should be unacceptable in Canada.”

“Whether you're a First Nations youth living in Neskantaga or elsewhere in Canada, you see the treatment of these communities and you see your face in them and it's hard to imagine the Canadian government believing you are deserving of human rights,” Leonard said.

The Canadian government had plans to end all boil water advisories this year, but said the pandemic is delaying them. Leonard said that is “preposterous;” the pandemic should have spurred officials to action.

“You’re saying it’s OK for (Indigenous peoples) to have disproportionate impacts of COVID,” Leonard said. “Not only are First Nations youth and citizens feeling like they're second-hand citizens in Canada, but they are sacrificial.”

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.