Women, children lead Attawapiskat march calling for permanent water fix

Carrying hand-drawn signs declaring, "Our Kids Matter, Water is Life" and, "Our People are Dying Slowly," about 50 Attawapiskat residents marched through their community Tuesday to demand a permanent fix to the Ontario First Nation's long-standing water problems.

Questions surface over Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan's promises

Attawapiskat community members marched throughout the community on Tuesday, pressing for a permanent fix to the water problems on the First Nation, about 490 kilometres north of Timmins, Ont. (Jorge Barrera/CBC News)

Carrying hand-drawn signs declaring, "Our Kids Matter, Water is Life" and, "Our People are Dying Slowly," dozens of Attawapiskat residents marched through their community Tuesday to press for an end to the Ontario First Nation's long-standing water problems.

About 50 marchers, mostly women and children, stopped at the band office and confronted Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull, handing him a letter and, speaking in Cree, demanding a permanent water fix.

"Water is supposedly for life," said Ida Linklater, a mother of four children. "I am hoping for action to take place, instead of waiting."

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

The levels also showed that, while reportedly still safe, THMs and HAAs were trending upward in the reverse osmosis filtered drinking water distributed at two filling stations in the community.   

THMs and HAAs are chemical byproducts of the disinfection process created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials in the community's water source. A lifetime exposure to the byproducts can lead to skin irritation and some forms of cancer. 

Attawapiskat residents in the community of about 2,000 people have been told to:

  • Limit their time showering.
  • Avoid using hot water (because it opens skin pores).
  • Ventilate bathrooms because THMs and HAAs can get into the air.  
Ida Linklater, a mother of four, said she wants action on Attawapiskat's long-standing water problems. (Gwen Gray/CBC)

Water supplied to Attawapiskat, about 490 kilometres north of Timmins, Ont., comes from a nearly stagnant lake compared by some to a glorified bog. 

The test results burst pent-up frustrations in the community, which has been struggling with water problems for years. Over the last decade, Attawapiskat has also suffered through a housing and a suicide crisis.  

A visit by Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan on Sunday did little to quell the fears and frustration of many in the community, despite his promises of help, including the arrival of a federal technical team, a medical team and a new water treatment plant.

Tuesday's march was held the same day the Indigenous Services Canada technical team arrived to meet with the band government to discuss short-term fixes to Attawapiskat's ailing water plant, which needs millions of dollars in repairs.

Signs like these were everywhere during the march. (Gwen Gray/CBC News)

Some marchers saw the arrival of the team and O'Regan's promises as a charade. 

"The current water crisis has been going on for many, many years, and has also been recorded with Indigenous Services Canada … based on past meetings, presentations and reports," says the letter that was hand-delivered to Gull and signed by 25 women.

"The commitments made by the minister [are] simply unjust."

Frustration in the community

Attawapiskat band Coun. Rosie Koostachin, who marched with her daughters and grandchildren on Tuesday, said Ottawa's reaction has been frustrating.

"I don't know if we are taken seriously," said Koostachin.

During the meeting with band representatives Tuesday, the Indigenous Services technical team would only agree to previously confirmed fixes, Wayne Turner, chief executive officer for the band, said in an interview with CBC News. 

None of the officials had any budgetary authority and told band representatives they needed to discuss the band's requests with their superiors before committing to anything more, he said. 

Children as well as women formed a bulk of the marchers. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Turner said the department's technical team reconfirmed plans to replace the two aging reverse osmosis filtration systems that supply drinking water at the two filling stations. 

That work could take about a month and cost between $200,000 and $300,000, said Turner.

Turner said that to cut down the levels of THMs and HAAs, the water system needs to undergo a swabbing process — foam swabs injected into fire hydrants and then pushed through the water pipes. 

Turner said Ottawa has only agreed to fund a small portion of the swabbing procedure, which would require replacing some community fire hydrants. 

The existing funding for the swabbing process comes from a portion of $1.5 million in fixes, which include electrical upgrades, to the water plant that the department committed to in April, he said.

The water plant "is broken. There's a lot of repairs that need to be done," said Turner. "It's not being run as it should be, it's not being run in an optimal matter, it's not being run in an automated manner. It's a hands-on operation."

Turner said the department has been aware of Attawapiskat's need for a new water treatment plant and new water source for at least a decade.

Hunger strikers want task force

O'Regan's promise of a medical team also appears to be falling flat, according to Attawapiskat band Coun. Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin, who on Tuesday was on the ninth day of a water-only hunger strike.

"The medical team that came here is part of our regional hospital group," she said. "There is no specialist or team that came in. We have a nurse practitioner and a doctor, that's about it."

Koostachin-Metatawabin embarked on the hunger strike with former chief Theresa Spence, who had become a focal point of the Idle No More movement during a liquids-only fast that lasted between December 2012 and January 2013. 

The idea for Tuesday's march emerged during a meeting between women in the community, Koostachin-Metatawabin and Spence — who was nominated to run for chief in August's band election.

Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin, an Attawapiskat band councillor, and Theresa Spence, a former chief, are on a hunger strike to force Ottawa and Ontario to the table. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Koostachin-Metatawabin and Spence want Ottawa and Ontario to again establish an Attawapiskat-focused task force to deal with infrastructure, health and social issues. 

"Until we get a written agreement stating they are going to re-establish the task force … we're not stopping," said Koostachin-Metatawabin.

The task force was created while Spence was chief, but has since been then discontinued.