Bee Moonias on life without clean drinking water

Published 2020-12-03 07:29
UPDATE: Community members began returning to Neskantaga First Nation on Dec. 18. Although they had access to clean tap water, they still had to boil it before drinking because problems with the water plant hadn't been completely resolved.

Deadline to fix water problems on reserves won't be met, Canada says

When you live your whole life without tap water that’s safe to drink, it can start to feel like you’re invisible.

That’s how nine-year-old Bedahbun Moonias from Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario put it.

“Sometimes, I feel like we don't exist,” she said. “Like we're just ghosts and we're just put in a drawer, in a box. We’re suffering in that box with no clean water.”

Bedahbun, who goes by the name Bee, lives in a community with a boil water advisory, which means her tap water has to be boiled before it’s safe to drink.

Neskantaga is one of 41 Indigenous communities in Canada that have boil water advisories in place.

On Tuesday, the Canadian government announced it wouldn’t meet a target to address all of those advisories by March 2021.

The news is a blow for Bee and around 300 Neskantaga residents who are living in a hotel more than 450 kilometres from home until their water problems are fixed.

Bee Moonias, left, and Jayla Troutlake, right, are two of about 300 community members who’ve been living in a hotel in Thunder Bay, Ontario, since October. (Image credit: Marc Doucette/CBC)

What’s wrong with the water in Neskantaga?

The boil water advisory in Bee’s community has been in place longer than any other in Canada — 25 years and counting.

A water treatment plant was built in the community in 1993, but it never worked well.

An investigation last month found a number of problems with the facility.

On Oct. 19, the tap water was turned off completely due to concerns that it might be toxic.

Spraypainted sign says We want action. No more words. No more broken promises. Water is life!

Neskantaga has a water treatment plant, but there are problems with it. This handmade sign was posted outside the facility. (Image credit: Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Most of the people in Bee’s community have been living in a hotel in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for more than 40 days.

The hotel is 450 kilometres away from Neskantaga. That’s about the same as the distance between Toronto and Ottawa.

Map of Ontario shows Neskantaga First Nation in relation to Thunder Bay.

What it's like living in a hotel

The kids in the community have been going to school in one of the hotel ballrooms.

When Jayla Troutlake, 9, was asked if she was having fun in her temporary home, she answered right away: “No.”

Kids do sewing and other crafts in hotel ballroom.

Bee and the other kids from Neskantaga are using a ballroom in the hotel as a classroom until they can go home. (Image credit: Marc Doucette/CBC)

She said she really misses her dog, Gizmo, who was one of 80 dogs that had to be left behind.

The animals are being fed by members of the Canadian military.

In a video posted to Twitter by Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias on Nov. 4, Bee talked about what she missed the most:

(Image credit: @can_ndn/Twitter)

Bee said she’s so used to dealing with bad water that she can’t even bring herself to drink water from the tap at the hotel, even though it’s clean.

Two weeks of water tests have to happen before Bee and the other community members can go home.

Dec. 15 is being floated as a possible return date, but that estimate keeps changing.

How many people are in this situation?

Right now, there are 59 boil water advisories in place across Canada — in a total of 41 communities.

In 2015, when Justin Trudeau was campaigning to become the next prime minister, he promised to end all boil water advisories in Indigenous communities.

Since then, his government has managed to fix 97.

Soldier pours dog food onto snowy ground.

Neskantaga residents had to leave most of their dogs behind. Members of the military are feeding them. (Image credit: Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

On Dec. 2, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller confirmed the government would not meet its goal to lift all long-term drinking water advisories by March 2021.

In part, he said, that’s because they didn’t realize how many repairs were required to get the clean water flowing.

“This was an ambitious deadline from the get-go,” Miller said.

He said another 20 advisories could be lifted by the end of December and he's hopeful there will only be 12 left by the time spring comes.

Miller said his government is willing to spend the money to finish the job.

With files from Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

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