An Indigenous community in northern Ontario has had no running water for more than two weeks and people don’t know when they’ll be able to return home after the community was evacuated to a city more than 400 kilometres away.
Last month, more than 200 residents of Neskantaga First Nation, a remote Oji-Cree community, were relocated to Thunder Bay when an oily substance appeared on the water following a system reboot. People couldn’t bathe or flush toilets, and schools and nursing homes were shut down. Those who stayed behind have had to buy bottled water or wade into an icy cold lake to collect fresh water.
After the community first tested the substance, a preliminary report listed high levels of hydrocarbons—chemical compounds found in crude oil and coal—in the water, according to the Globe and Mail.
NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, who met with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller last week to discuss Neskantaga’s water crisis, told VICE News the government’s “flip” response is “deeply disturbing.”
“The minister works for the bureaucracy and their job is to limit spending,” Angus said. “All the way along the department’s position has been to limit government costs, which has put people at risk.”
“We have a human rights crisis. Are (government officials) going to fix it?” Angus said.
On Friday, Indigenous Services deployed the Canadian Rangers, an arm of the Canadian Army Reserve, “to support the community,” Miller said.
Miller's office told VICE News they’ve also been in touch with Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias and have committed to installing a new water treatment plant that will “finally lift the community’s long-term drinking water advisory. “It will be fully functional soon,” said Adrienne Vaupshas, Miller’s press secretary, but did not say when residents could return home.
In a statement sent to VICE News on Tuesday, Neskantaga First Nation said residents will stage a sit-in at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Tuesday to protest against government inaction in addressing the water crisis.
“Our people are tired and frustrated. We have been denied access to clean water for far too long. There are no acceptable excuses for this at any level of government,” Chief Moonias said.
In the same statement, Neskantaga Councillor Allan Moonias, one of the protesters in Toronto, said, “The ‘new’ water treatment plant, which has been in progress for years, has not been commissioned yet, and the water supply system and related infrastructure are in need of replacement.”
“The community is demanding a commitment from Ontario to contribute to a new distribution and sewer system so that water may flow to all community members,” the statement said, adding that Neskantaga also wants mental health supports for residents who have to grapple with ongoing and frequent water crises.
A spokesperson with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks, Gary Wheeler, said the provincial government is working with Neskantaga to develop long-term solutions. But the federal government has to provide adequate funding to address water systems issues in Indigenous communities, Wheeler said.
The Ontario government, Vaupshas, and Indigenous Services Canada did not respond to allegations that they failed to adequately support the community.
According to Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents almost 50 First Nations including Neskantaga, residents won’t return until the government meets its minimum demands, including ensuring the community has running water 24-7, and homes are decontaminated.
It took the Canadian government nearly three days to recognize the current situation in the First Nation as a public health crisis, despite clean running water being essential for following public health advice during the ongoing pandemic.
Before this latest crisis, Neskantaga First Nation was already struggling with a 26-year boil water advisory, the longest in the country.
“When I became chief I never thought I’d be fighting this hard for a basic human right to have a glass of clean drinking water,” Moonias said on Twitter earlier this week.
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