Thunder Bay

Few left behind in Neskantaga First Nation prepare for winter without water

A week after the water stopped flowing into homes in Neskantaga First Nation, a handful of residents remain behind to keep houses safe and prepare for the eventual return of the evacuees.

Dogs must be fed, vacant houses heated after hundreds of evacuees are moved to Thunder Bay, Ont.

First Nations leaders and technical advisors visited Neskantaga First Nation on Monday. Only a few residents remain behind to look after empty homes and other infrastructure. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

A week after the water stopped flowing into homes in Neskantaga First Nation, 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., a handful of residents remain behind to keep houses safe and prepare for the eventual return of the evacuees.

Indigenous Services Canada promised last week to support any member who chose to leave after the community's water was shut down when an oily substance was found in the reservoir on Oct. 19. Tests later showed the water was contaminated with hydrocarbon. The chief issued a "do not consume order."

The community had already been under a boil water advisory for more than 25 years.

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias, who left his home last week, returned to the community on Monday along with other members of the council, the MPP for the region and the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, to see conditions first hand. A technical expert from Indigenous Services Canada and Matawa First Nations Management also flew up to Neskantaga.

"It was emotional for the community leadership when we landed earlier this morning," NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa said on Twitter.

Fewer than 20 people remain in Neskantaga out of a population of about 300, and conditions are dire. With no running water, they must use pails and buckets to collect water from the lake in freezing temperatures. They are also responsible for keeping empty homes heated to a minimum temperature to prevent frozen pipes, and for feeding pets left behind.

"They are struggling," Moonias said of the people still in the community. "But their spirits are high. I did ask them if they could be part of the evacuation, but these are the duties and responsibilities they felt they had and it's part of their commitment of the community. They committed to each member of the community that their houses will be taken care of."

Neskantaga First Nation, formerly known as Lansdowne House, is located about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. (CBC)

This is happening during a critical time of year for the community, said Wayne Moonias, a former chief and one of those remaining in Neskantaga.

"It's the season when people are usually out harvesting traditional food or in the bush collecting wood for the winter," he said. 

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said last week he is committed to helping Neskantaga get through this latest crisis, by supporting the evacuation and other needs that may arise. He said his department is working as quickly as possible to fix the ongoing water crisis in Neskantaga, but there are many hurdles to overcome.

Once the contamination of the water is cleared and the plant becomes functional again, leaks in the water distribution system must be addressed and then there's the problem of waste water. The new water plant is not compatible with the old sewage system, Miller said.

The First Nation, meanwhile, has laid out a set of demands that leaders say must be met before evacuees will be returned to Neskantaga.

They are:

  1. Running water available from taps on a 24-hour basis, as a temporary solution even if a boil water advisory exists as an interim solution.
  2. Immediate installation of two temporary portable water treatment units to provide safe drinking water from central locations.
  3. A new water distribution system that "meets highest current standards."
  4. A survey of pipes in all residences by a certified plumber to "assess and repair leaks and additional system loads."
  5. Decontamination of homes damaged by the current crisis.
  6. An immediate investigation into business practices of contractors and engineering companies who may have contributed to problems or caused delays.
  7. An immediate review of the contributing factors to the current water and public health crisis.

The federal Liberals had promised to have a new water plant operational in Neskantaga by 2018. Neskantaga has not had tap water that is safe to drink since 1995.