The chief of Neskantaga First Nation in northwestern Ontario says, after 20 years under a boil water advisory, he can't understand why his community has slipped down the federal government's priority list for safe drinking water.
Chief Wayne Moonias met with officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in Thunder Bay on Thursday.
He said department officials told him that Neskantaga is number 19 on the government's priority list for spending on water plants. Previously, Moonias said the community was told it was fourth on that list.
"We're over 20 years already where our people haven't been able to get the water they need to drink from their taps or to bathe themselves without getting any rashes," Moonias said.
Boil water advisory since 1995
The boil water advisory was issued for Neskantaga in 1995 because the water from the community's then two-year-old water plant often tested positive for high levels of chlorine and harmful disinfectant products.
Now, some people are walking more than a kilometre each day and carrying fresh water home from the lake or from the reverse osmosis water system that is not connected to the community's water mains, Moonias said.
The limited capacity of the reverse osmosis system means bottled water is sometimes flown in, at a hefty cost, he said.
"Our accountant estimates that at least a million dollars has been spent on bottled water," Moonias said. "Yet the government says they don't have any money."
$1M for bottled water vs. $5.8M for water plant
A 2013 report, funded by the federal government, set the total cost to design and build a new water plant in Neskantaga at $5,851,200. Moonias said after Thursday's meeting he's frustrated that the government appears unprepared to act on that report, or offer any help at all.
A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs confirmed to CBC News that department officials met with Moonias, but said she could not meet CBC's request for information about the outcome of the meeting.
Meanwhile, former Liberal leader Bob Rae wrote a letter asking the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to fund a new water plant in Neskantaga. Rae is the negotiator for the community and eight other First Nations in their talks with Ontario about the Ring of Fire mining development.
"There is no time to waste," Rae wrote in the letter dated May 27. "Lives are at risk."
In response to Rae's letter, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said that since 2006 the federal government has invested approximately $3 billion to complete more than 220 major projects and funded maintenance of over 1,200 water and wastewater treatment projects.