Thunder Bay

Two long-term water advisories lifted in Ontario First Nations as feds approach 2021 deadline

Residents of Grassy Narrows and Wauzhushk Onigum First Nations, both located in northwestern Ontario, are finally able to drink from their taps as they celebrated lifting long-term boil water advisories this week.

The federal government has a goal of ending all long-term boil water advisories by March 2021

Grassy Narrows and Wauzhushk Onigum, two First Nations in northwestern Ontario, celebrated the ending of long-term boil water advisories at the end of September 2020.

Two First Nations in northwestern Ontario are finally able to drink from their taps as they celebrated lifting long-term boil water advisories this week.

Community members in Grassy Narrows First Nation, also known as Asubpeeschoseewagong, received a letter from Chief Rudy Turtle on September 29 which read: "As of TODAY the boil water advisory is NOW lifted. This means you can safely consume the tap water."

One day later, the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation celebrated the end of their long-term boil water advisory at the completion of the $14-million project to connect the community to the city of Kenora's water and sewer system.

The two First Nations are the latest to join the growing list of communities whose long-term advisories have been lifted since 2015, but another 60 long-term advisories remain in effect as the clock winds down on the federal government's promise to end all long-term advisories by March 2021.

Parts of Grassy Narrows on boil water advisory since 2013

Indigenous Services Canada lists three boil water advisories in Grassy Narrows First Nation, with the first of them being issued back in May 2013.

So while the main reaction from residents of the First Nation has been "positive," Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle said, "some of the comments we're getting [are] people saying…finally."

Turtle added, "Some people are a little leery or apprehensive ... and I think for some it'll take a little bit of time to finally trust the water. But I don't blame them because they've been on this advisory for so long that it's kind of, you know, it's unbelievable that they could finally drink it."

The First Nation declared a state of emergency in August 2015 after they did not receive answers from the federal government to questions about the safety of their water. 

Previous reports indicated that water turbidity was at 120 times Ontario health guidelines and there was the presence of potentially cancer-causing disinfectant by-products. Another report from 2011 noted the presence of uranium in well water, which doesn't meet provincial health guidelines.

Turtle said the three separate public water systems in the First Nation were merged into one system in December 2019. Then, after months of work and the installation of new equipment in the existing plant, he received a letter from Health Canada saying that the water was safe for human consumption.

After one more round of tests, Turtle sent out the letter.

"I'm happy. This has definitely made life easier for our community members, and they don't have to worry about getting bottled water. But it's truly, truly good that now they can just turn to the water taps."

They've been on this advisory for so long that it's kind of, you know, it's unbelievable that they could finally drink it.- Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle

But Turtle says he is now looking to secure safe water for future generations.

"We are shooting for a new water treatment plant, and it's because our population is growing and will continue to grow…so I'm looking ahead and it's much better that we get a bigger water treatment plan so that we'll be able to meet the demand in the future."

Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation connected to Kenora water system on September 30

Meanwhile, Chief Chris Skead of the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation celebrated the fruition of a partnership with the city of Kenora that was several years in the works.

Skead said in a release, "today is first a celebration for the citizens of our First Nation who will finally have safe drinking water after being on a boil water order for over 3 years."

He added, "it is also the celebration of a partnership with the City of Kenora that has been discussed for many years."

Negotiations about bringing clean water to the First Nation began between the two communities in September 2018. An agreement to connect Wauzhushk Onigum's water and sewer system with that of Kenora was not reached until June 2020, with the completion of construction taking place in September 2020.

The project cost a total of $14.6 million, with the federal government contributing the majority of the funding to make it happen.

Indigenous Services Canada website lists three long-term boil water advisories for the First Nation, two of which are still listed as being in effect since 2012 and 2017, respectively. The third is listed as being resolved in 2017. 

A spokesperson for the federal ministry said the website is currently being updated, but CBC News could not confirm which boil water advisories were ended nor how many community members, if any at all, are still affected by an advisory at the time of publication.

With files from Jody Porter and Jeff Walters

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