Thunder Bay

Neskantaga First Nation water crisis shows 'apartheid system' of clean water access, NDP MPP says

A week after the evacuation of a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario, First Nations leaders say there is still no plan to restore running water to the community.

No plan to restore running water a week after contamination shut the system down, leaders say

About two dozen essential workers remain in Neskantaga First Nation. With no running water they must venture out into the cold lake to collect water for flushing toilets, washing hands and bathing. Indigenous Services is providing bottled water for drinking. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

A week after the evacuation of a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario, First Nations leaders say there is still no plan to restore running water to the community.

Neskantaga First Nation shut down its water plant on October 19 after an oily substance was discovered in the reservoir. An evacuation began the following day and now, only a few essential workers remain in the fly-in community, located about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

First Nations leaders and technical advisors visited Neskantaga on Monday to see the problems first-hand. NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, whose Kiiwetinoong riding includes Neskantaga, told CBC News what he witnessed there was "the utter failure" of Canada and Ontario.

"We cannot treat people of Neskantaga differently compared to people who are in Mississauga, people in Toronto," Mamakwa said. "We cannot have this kind of apartheid system of access to clean drinking water."

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

While running water was available to homes in Neskantaga until last Monday, the tap water in the community has not been safe to drink since February 1995, and Mamakwa said he has seen little urgency from Ontario and Canada to change that.

"We have to have running water restored, as a first step," he said. "That's not happening. There is no plan."

Initial tests on the substance found in the reservoir show it is a hydro carbon, but more investigation is needed to determine where it came from and how it is getting in the water, said Alvin Fiddler.

The Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation was also among the visitors to Neskantaga on Monday.

"First of all they need to diagnose the problem, or problems," Fiddler said. "Then, they need to look at the system as a whole."

Handmade signs greeted visitors to Neskantaga on Monday. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

The federal government's "scope" for lifting boil water advisories is too limited, focusing only on the water treatment plant and ignoring the pipes leading to homes and the waste water system, he said.

"The community, they want to look at the whole system from source to tap and the whole system needs to be assessed and to detect any problems and to fix them," Fiddler said. 

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he is aware of the interconnected problems.

"It is complex," Miller told reporters in Ottawa on Monday. "But we're committed to repairing it and I hope we're close."

A spokesperson for Indigenous Service Canada told CBC News that it is providing more than $16 million for "all aspects" of the water treatment plant upgrade project and that more funding will be provided for immediate repairs "as necessary."

As for a plan, spokesperson Adrienne Vaupshas said experts with the department are working with Matawa, the First Nations management group that provides technical support to Neskantaga, to formulate one.

Fiddler said community members — both the evacuees in Thunder Bay and those remaining still in Neskantaga — are increasingly anxious to know what the plan is.

'Racism affects this community'

It's possible evacuees may not be able to return to Neskantaga this winter, Mamakwa said.

For his part, the MPP said he is taking two bottles of water from the Neskantaga water plant back to Queen's Park with him this week.

Ontario is a signatory to Treaty 9, along with Neskantaga and Canada and has an obligation to help end the crisis, he said.

"Especially during a pandemic, to see the continued complacency of government, in 2020, in Ontario, in Canada, you can see how racism affects this community," Mamakwa said.

That racism costs lives, he added, noting that a 23-year-old woman died by suicide in Neskantaga last year, without ever having tasted clean water from the tap in her home.