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Campaigners call for clean water in Neskantaga outside Queen's Park, Ontario's legislative assembly in Toronto, Canada, November 6, 2020.
Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jack Graham
Water & Sanitation

Canadian First Nation Forced to Evacuate Amid COVID-19 Due to Lack of Clean Water

By Jack Graham

TORONTO, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When an oily sheen was discovered on the surface of the local water reservoir in October, Canada's Neskantaga First Nation was forced to close off the pipes and move.

Isolated in remote northern Ontario, accessible only by plane or on winter roads, nearly all 300 residents evacuated to Thunder Bay, more than 400 kilometers away, breaking the protective bubble of isolation they had tried to build during COVID-19.

Weeks later, they are living in hotels, waiting for clean-up repairs and tests to confirm that the water is safe enough to go home.

The evacuation is just the latest water crisis in Neskantaga, where even in normal times the water is considered unsafe.

Despite many attempted repairs and upgrades, for 25 years the community has been under a boil-water advisory — a public health directive to drink boiled or bottled water issued when the water is considered a potential health risk.

Neskantaga has the longest-running advisory in Canada, but it is just one of more than 40 Indigenous communities without access to a drinkable water supply.

"All we want is a clean glass of water coming out of our taps," Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Sometimes you don't even feel like you're being treated as a basic human being."

The community's water system was built in 1993 and has been plagued with issues ever since, including problems with the treatment plant, chemical contamination and a faulty distribution system.

Indigenous people in dozens of communities across Canada live with water supplies that are unclean or degraded, according to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2016.

Some have poor treatment systems and others have water that is contaminated naturally, by faulty wastewater management or from despoiled sources, it said.

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Impact of COVID-19

The federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lifted 88 boil-water advisories from November 2015 to February 2020 through efforts like building or upgrading water treatment plants.

It had promised to lift all remaining advisories by March 2021 but has since back-tracked, citing COVID-19 disruption.

"It is too early to determine the full impact of COVID-19 on water infrastructure timelines, but we remain aggressively committed on the Spring 2021 goal," said the office of Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services Canada, in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Neskantaga First Nation, who live along Attawapiskat Lake in northern Ontario, was relocated to its current location starting in the 1980s, with an offer of better services including water, according to Human Rights Watch.

An CAD$8.8 million federal investment in 2017 was supposed to upgrade Neskantaga's water treatment plant, but Moonias said costs have almost doubled to more than CAD$16 million due to various ongoing issues.

He is calling for a complete overhaul of the water treatment system, and he added that the tribe was put at terrible risk because of the water issue.

"My community decided they were going to take a chance with the pandemic, because they didn't want to go through days and days of not having any water," he said.

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"Governments Are Ignoring Our Treaties"

An Indigenous Services Canada representative said department officials were preparing an investigation into the business practices of contractors and engineering companies that have worked on Neskantaga's water supply, which was another of Moonias' demands.

But Neskantaga members and supporters say a lack of political will has been the biggest hurdle for decades.

"If we wanted to fix this problem, we would have fixed this problem," said Dayna Scott, an environmental law professor at York University who advocates for Neskantaga.

"You can't just go in and try to fix it quickly with a Band-Aid, and they've done that over and over," she said.

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Although the federal government has jurisdiction over First Nations reservations, Neskantaga campaigners say the provincial government should do more to help as a signatory to Treaty 9, an agreement with northern Ontario's First Nations.

"I think both governments are ignoring our treaties or their responsibilities for First Nations," said Alex Moonias, a Neskantaga elder who held a recent sit-in at Ontario's parliament in Toronto.

"Water is life, and we need clean water in our community and in our homes," he said.

Moonias said among the many difficulties to living without clean water, it's especially hard for young families for tasks as basic as bathing their children.

In their Thunder Bay hotels, some community members are buying bottled water because they don't trust drinking from the taps, the chief said, a sign that people are traumatized by living for years under a water advisory.

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"It's not normal to think ‘I have to have bottled water,'" he said.

Not knowing when the First Nation can return home, the chief said he was concerned by surging rates of COVID-19 in Ontario, with record new daily cases of more than 1,200 in the province, an outbreak of more than 50 cases in Thunder Bay and an isolated case of a contractor who tested positive in Neskantaga.

Due to high rates of chronic illnesses, he said they are particularly vulnerable.

"If my community members contract the virus, we're facing a potential public health emergency," Moonias said.

"We want to go home."

(Reporting by Jack Graham; editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)