Indigenous Services Minister assures Attawapiskat that 'Canada does care'

Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services, Seamus O’Regan, said reassuring an 8-year-old girl in Attawapiskat about the water crisis affecting the First Nation was 'emotional.'

Minister confronted by 8-year-old girl at meeting to discuss water crisis

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan meets with about 200 people in the high school gym in Attawapiskat Sunday to discuss the Cree community's drinking water woes. (Indigenous Services Canada )

Canada's Minister of Indigenous Services, Seamus O'Regan, says reassuring an eight-year-old girl in Attawapiskat about the water crisis affecting the First Nation was "emotional."

O'Regan flew into the remote northern Ontario community Sunday to address concerns about water safety. About 200 people attended the town-hall style meeting, including the young girl.

"She was quite shaken and and burst into tears," O'Regan told CBC's Morning North. "I went over and comforted her as best I could and said, 'You know, Canada does care about you. We do care about you, and we want to make sure that we do right by you.'

"And I think that we're on the path to doing that," he said.

O'Regan said $1.5 million is "on the table" to immediately flush out some of the water systems, using supplies and technology available in the community. After that, they'll work on a long-term plan for Attawapiskat that will also take into consideration housing and sewage issues.

The declaration of a state of emergency in the community of about 2,000 was made by Chief Ignace Gull and the band council July 7 after tests showed the tap water had potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs).

O'Regan added that shaken faith between the government and Attawapiskat is as much a danger as the water quality.

"Every Canadian should feel that when they turn the tap on in their house that the water that comes out is is safe, that the water that comes out is clean," O'Regan said. "And they let that be known to me."

O'Regan says his visit to Attawapiskat was 'emotional.' (Katie Breen/CBC)

O'Regan said the first priority will be to assess the community's needs, but gave the government's assurance that the drinking water is safe.  

"We have a reverse osmosis system there … where people can get the water, and the water is very good," he said. "It meets the standards that we demand for it."

O'Regan said the water from those systems is "more than suitable" for human consumption.

"I drank it myself and I emphasized that point to them," he said. "But, you know, this is really a matter of trust, and they are shaken and we have to rebuild that."

Chief Ignace Gull says he is cautiously optimistic about the government's pledge to rebuild the water systems in the community. (Ignace Gull/Facebook)

The chief said people in the community are pleased O'Regan visited, but are still cautious about the pledge to rebuild the water systems.

"Maybe [they're] not totally satisfied," Gull said. "They accepted the minister's commitment that they want to work with the community, and everybody after the meeting came around and shook hands."