Indigenous

Hunger strike ends in Attawapiskat after Ottawa, Ontario sign off on task force

An Attawapiskat, Ont., band councillor and a former chief say they ended their 15-day hunger strike Monday evening after the federal and provincial governments agreed to restart a dormant joint task force and put the commitment in writing. 

Band councillor says 15-day hunger strike was an act of frustration

Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin, an Attawapiskat band councillor, and Theresa Spence, a former chief, ended their hunger strike on Monday evening. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

An Attawapiskat, Ont., band councillor and a former chief say they ended their 15-day hunger strike Monday evening after the federal and provincial governments agreed to restart a dormant joint task force and put the commitment in writing. 

Attawapiskat Coun. Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin and former chief Theresa Spence began their water-only hunger strike after the community declared a state of emergency over its water quality. 

Koostachin-Metatawabin and Spence wanted the federal and provincial governments to return to three-way talks with Attawapiskat to focus on the issues facing the community. 

The joint task force, with federal, provincial and band representatives, met in Attawapiskat on Tuesday. It was originally created in 2014 while Spence was chief but eventually fell into disuse. (Spence had previously held a hunger strike in late 2012 and early 2013 as part of the Idle No More movement.) 

Koostachin-Metatawabin said it was important to get a written commitment that would remain on the table after a new band council is elected in August.

"We don't trust the government; we hear their promises whenever the community calls for a state of emergency," said Koostachin-Metatawabin. 

"We got tired of that and I got frustrated with that and said, no, it's not going to happen. I have to do something."

Ida Linklater, a mother of four, took part in a protest in Attawapiskat on July 23. (Gwen Gray/CBC)

Koostachin-Metatawabin said she and Spence received a medical checkup on Monday evening and emerged without any major complications.

Koostachin-Metatawabin said she understands that many don't agree with hunger strike protests because of the high rates of suicides in First Nations.

"I understand that and I respect that," she said. "At the same time, I am trying to improve the quality of life for our members. So I had to do it."

Task force reconvened

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan confirmed the task force was reconvened. 

O'Regan's spokesperson Kevin Deagle said the task force would deal with Attawapiskat's needs for new reserve lands, housing, infrastructure, health, social services and governance issues. 

"There is also a recognition of the particular urgency of water issues in the community," said Deagle. 

Ontario's Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said in an emailed statement to CBC News that he was committing to a "renewed relationship" with Attawapiskat. 

The statement said the province was also "reaffirming its commitment" to transfer Crown lands to help Attawapiskat expand its overcrowded reserve, which would open a path to improving the community's infrastructure and housing situation.

"Ontario also continues to recognize the role of the federal government to fulfil [its] responsibility of ensuring safe water on reserves," said Rickford's statement. 

State of emergency over tap water

Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency earlier this month after tests by the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch revealed levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) above federal drinking water standards in the community's tap water. 

Tests showed that residents' other source of water — two filling stations that use a reverse osmosis system — is safe to drink, but with THMs and HAAs trending upward.

THMs and HAAs are chemical byproducts of the disinfection process created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials in the community's source water.

Children carry signs during a water march in Attawapiskat on July 23. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Attawapiskat's water comes from a nearly stagnant lake compared by some in the community to a glorified bog. 

Lifetime exposure to the chemical byproducts can lead to skin irritation and an increased risk of some forms of cancer. 

Attawapiskat residents have been told to limit their time in the shower because it opens skin pores, and to ventilate bathrooms because THMs and HAAs can get into the air.  

Indigenous Services has committed to replacing the reverse osmosis systems that provides drinking water to the community. 

The department, which includes the First Nations Inuit Health Branch, also sent two nurse practitioners this week to provide medical services to community members who believe skin rashes and other illnesses have been caused by the water. 

O'Regan promised the community a new water plant and a new water source. 

Chief Ignace Gull told CBC News the community has asked for years to switch its water source to the Attawapiskat River.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.