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Neskantaga First Nation orders Kingdom Construction workers to 'leave the community immediately'

It's been almost 25 years since residents in Neskantaga First Nation, about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., have had access to safe, clean drinking water straight from their taps and it could be months yet before the country's longest unbroken boil water advisory is lifted.

New water treatment facility was expected to be completed by March 2019

It's been almost 25 years since residents in Neskantaga First Nation, about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.,  have had access to safe, clean drinking water straight from their taps and it could be months yet before the country's longest unbroken boil water advisory is lifted.

Chief Wayne Moonias said Wednesday the community has decided to cease all operations on the new water treatment plant and has ordered workers and officials from Kingdom Construction Limited (KCL) to "leave the community immediately."

"We basically terminated the contract with Kingdom and that's basically all I can say at this time," Moonias told CBC News Wednesday. "It's relating to our water treatment project that's been ongoing for the last few years or so."

The federal government stated in December 2015 that the community would get a new treatment plant by May 2018.  However, after several construction delays and equipment failures, the new date of completion was set as March 2019. But a tour of the community's new water treatment facility suggested the project is far from its promised completion date next month.

"We were supposed to complete this back in the spring of 2018 and it is already winter 2019," Moonias said, while refraining from blaming Kingdom Construction Limited for the delay.

"The main issue right now is we want safe, clean drinking water in the community,"  he said.

Every classroom at the elementary school in Neskantaga First Nation had this public notice warning posted on their wall to remind children not to drink water straight from the tap. (Christina Jung/CBC)

While terminating the contract with KCL, Moonias also asked Indigenous Services Canada to decommission the temporary water filter system and supply the community with unlimited bottles of water.

Community 'getting tired' of temporary water system

The only safe clean water that residents in Neskantaga can access is from the temporary Reverse Osmosis (RO) Unit that's located in a small wooden shack by the motel near Attawapiskat Lake.

Moonias said they have been using the temporary filter system for about 10 years now and people in the community "are getting tired of using the RO Unit."

This is the community's filtered water station. The operations and maintenance technician with Matawa Technical Services said the reverse osmosis unit, located inside this wooden shack, often has problems as it is temperature sensitive and not meant to be operating out in the cold. (Christina Jung / CBC)

The unit also hasn't been the most reliable solution for the community.

"What we found with the RO Unit is that its very difficult to treat the water in Neskantaga," Aaron Wesley, the community's operations and maintenance technician from Matawa Technical Services, told a group of reporters, touring the community Wednesday.

He said "in the remote north a lot of the lakes have a high colour," which meant that the community had to spend "a lot of money and resources" to try and "fix the membrane system."

"So we went through trial and error trying to get it right ... We pretty much developed our own type of system to upgrade the unit," Wesley said, adding that problems still exist with the unit because it was "not meant to be operated out in the cold."

'Frequent' visits from patients with rashes

The boil water advisory in Neskantaga was first imposed in 1995 and residents in the fly-in Ojibway community are still forced to boil their water before using it.

"When I started out, I did see patients being brought in for skin conditions like rashes, scabies and all that from the water," Sharon Sakanee, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation health director explained.  "That happened frequently."

She said she also has rashes from showering with the community's unfiltered water.

"Just recently it started again, having all sorts of sores on my body," Sakanee said, "and it's very uncomfortable because you are just itching and itching and itching even throughout the night."

This is what the tap water looks like in Neskantaga First Nation. (Christina Jung /CBC)

She, and many others in the community, also expressed how not having access to clean water for over two decades has negatively affected their mental health.

"Even when I travel, I don't drink from the tap," Sakanee explained. "I know for a few times when I checked into hotels, I've asked is the water safe and they would look at me like, of course it is."

Sakanee said for her 25-year-old daughter, who has never had access to safe drinking water in her community, being able to turn on the tap and drink from it one day will be "something new" for her.

On Thursday afternoon, Indigenous Services Canada sent an email response to CBC News stating that "it is unacceptable that chronic underfunding for on-reserve infrastructure has left First Nations like Neskantaga without access to clean water for more than 20 years. Our government firmly committed to working with the community to complete work on their water infrastructure and bring clean drinking water to the people of Neskantaga. Indigenous Services Canada officials are currently engaged with the community to present status of the project and confirm the path forward."