Thunder Bay

Neskantaga First Nation evacuees can return home, officials say

Evacuees from Neskantaga First Nation started returning home Monday after recent water testing showed chlorine and microbiological levels returned to where they were before a pump in the local water system malfunctioned, triggering a state of emergency.

Remote First Nation declared state of emergency on Sept. 14 due to water pump breaking down

Evacuees from Neskantaga First Nation can start returning home Monday, community officials said. (Christina Jung/CBC)

Evacuees from Neskantaga First Nation started returning home Monday after recent water testing showed chlorine and microbiological levels were at acceptable levels after a new pump was installed in the local water system.

The previous piece of equipment malfunctioned earlier in September, triggering a state of emergency.

About 220 residents were in Thunder Bay for more than a week after the pump went down on Sept. 14. Chief Chris Moonias called for the evacuation himself, concerned about symptoms he said were showing up in community members, including skin rashes, stomach problems and headaches.

"The pump that was replaced is working right now and the faulty pump has been removed," he said, adding that finding a new one wasn't easy. He said he was told that the new unit had to be ordered from Mississauga, and was the only one in Canada they could get delivered quickly.

"It's not a matter of running to your local Canadian Tire and getting a pump," he said. "It's a major infrastructure challenge we had."

Water samples were collected on Sept. 18 and Sept. 19 from various locations in the water system, a statement from the First Nation said, and found that chlorine levels were at a level "in accordance with the current legislation."

Testing also found that "all required conditions have been met to guarantee that the drinking water supply is of
an acceptable microbiological quality."

After the pump broke down, the community's water supply was placed under a "do not consume" order; that will be lifted and returned to a boil water advisory.

Neskantaga continues to have Canada's longest uninterrupted boil water advisory. The community has had to boil their water for 25 years.

Work continues on a new water treatment plant designed to lift that advisory. Community and federal officials say it should be up and running in October.

"We are happy to be finally going home after a long week away," Moonias was quoted as saying in the community's statement.. "I would like to thank our people for the strength they've shown, and the individuals and organizations that have helped and supported us along the way."

Our hope is that the Canadian government follows the lead of the people and supports our community in overcoming this difficulty as well as the continued battle we experience with the 25-year boil water advisory."

Moonias told CBC News he's still waiting to hear from the federal government to get more details about the "support" promised during the evacuation. Indigenous Services Canada had denied the community's request for an evacuation, citing the short amount of time it would take to repair the problem and that information they had showed there were no immediate health or safety risks, the latter point Moonias disputed.

Valerie Gideon, the deputy minister for Indigenous Services Canada, told reporters during the community-led evacuation that the support Ottawa was offering was around things like enhanced medical resources in the community, paying if people needed to be flown out for medical reasons and funding the repairs to the pump and the water system, which is being managed by the Matawa Chiefs Council.

The first flight home for evacuees was scheduled to leave Thunder Bay Monday at 11 a.m.

Neskantaga is about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.