Neskantaga First Nation surpasses 10,000 days under a drinking water advisory
'Every time we fix something… something else breaks,' chief's advisor says as community hits grim milestone
WARNING: This story includes a reference to a suicide.
Neskantaga First Nation on Sunday marked its 10,000th day under a drinking water advisory, the longest period of time any First Nation in Canada has lived under such an advisory.
The community of around 300 people approximately 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., has survived without safe, clean tap water for more than 27 years.
"It's very disheartening to see… especially young kids getting rashes, getting sores, being bandaged up when they are exposed to the untreatable water that comes into their homes," chief Wayne Moonias told Radio-Canada Saturday.
The current drinking water problems date back to the early 1990s, when the First Nation relocated from its original reserve at Lansdowne House, a former Hudson's Bay Company trading post, because the swampy land limited expansion of the community, explained Chris Moonias, a former chief of the community and an advisor to the current chief.
The federal government paid for the construction of a water treatment plant in the new community, but it proved ineffective almost immediately, and the community was placed under a boil-water advisory on Feb. 1, 1995 – an advisory it has never emerged from.
The federal Liberal government pledged in 2015 to end drinking water advisories on reserve by March 31, 2021.
But there are still 34 such advisories in 29 communities, according to the government website tracking its progress, including more than a dozen in northwestern Ontario.
What's more, an auditor general's report released in February of last year found that the government had used temporary measures to lift 15 of the 100 advisories that had been lifted. And five communities where advisories had been lifted had experienced subsequent long-term drinking water advisories.
Neskantaga has insisted it will not lift its advisory until the new facility is not only guaranteed to work but is guaranteed to work reliably long-term, Chris Moonias said.
The federal government contracted a company in 2017 to upgrade the water plant in Neskantaga, but the community terminated the contract two years later after the contractor failed to meet the completion deadline. The company president told CBC in 2020 that the contract was too rigid to accommodate unexpected challenges.
The government subsequently contracted another company to complete the work, but the community declared a state of emergency and evacuated in September of 2019 after a pump failed, affecting water pressure.
Then, in October of 2020, community members spotted an oily sheen on the reservoir, and the community evacuated again, returning home just days before Christmas.
At the time, there was hope that they would arrive to find clean water flowing through the faucets.
But "[e]very time we fix something… something else breaks," said Chris Moonias.
"It pretty much has to do with it being an old system. I think it would've probably been better for how much they've spent … to build a new one."
Wayne Moonias likened the government's approach to putting a new engine into the body of an old car.
A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada told Radio-Canada that the ministry continues to work with Neskantaga on a solution to its water woes and has spent approximately $25 million on treatment plant upgrades and operational support.
Construction of the water treatment plant is nearing completion, he said in an email, and workers are trying to address shortcomings with the system and ensure its reliability.
Work is expected to be completed in September of this year, he said.
The treatment plant is scheduled to undergo a run-test in August, Chris Moonias said.
But even when the system is finally running reliably, there is work to be done to address the trauma in the community caused by years of living without clean water, he said.
"We had a mother that went to go get water, walked over to the water plant where there's a reverse osmosis system, only to find that her daughter had committed suicide while she was hauling water," he said.
"Those are the real traumas that happen."
Indigenous Services Canada is supporting a community wellness initiative called Trust the Taps aimed at healing from the trauma caused by the water problems.
If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre
with files from Aya Dufour and Olivia Stefanovich.