Wishing for a summer with clean water in Attawapiskat

Marcey Wesley, 8, says it makes her sad she can't play with water balloons this summer, as families on the Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat have been told to limit their tap-water use. An ongoing water crisis is forcing residents to lug containers to watering stations providing free filtered drinking water.

Ontario First Nation's residents have faced an endless crisis since signing Treaty 9 in 1905, says elder

Marcey Wesley, 8, says the water crisis in Attawapiskat means no water balloons, water guns or wading pools this summer on the Ontario First Nation. (Nic Meloney/CBC News)

Eight-year-old Marcey Wesley says it makes her sad she can't play with water balloons this summer. 

The tap water in the Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat isn't safe. It has high levels of a chemical byproduct produced by the chlorination process in the community's ailing water plant that needs millions of dollars in repairs. 

Residents have been told to limit their use of tap water, which means summer games with garden hoses will have to wait until next year.   

"It's kind of sad — we can't even set up a pool, we can't even play with water guns, we can't even play with water balloons," Marcey said. 

But this is not the only thing that worries her.

"I only have one kidney and I need to drink water every day," she said. 

Her mother, Georgina Wesley, said she has never known a day in Attawapiskat when she could drink tap water. 

Instead, like everyone else here, she lugs jugs and containers to the two watering stations in the community that provide free drinking water filtered through a reverse osmosis system. 

But that system is also failing. Recent tests showed that, while still considered safe to drink, there were rising levels of the chemical byproducts known as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids in the water people use to cook, make tea and drink.

Karis Wesley, 5, Marcey's sister, in the door of a house in Attawapiskat. (Jorge Barrera/CBC News)

The department of Indigeous Services has told the community it would replace the two reverse osmosis systems, a project that could take about a month to complete. 

Still, the fear remains.

"Since the water crisis, what water can she [Marcey] drink? Where we get our water from, is it safe to drink? Is it not safe to drink?" said Georgina Wesley. 

"What if tomorrow it's not safe to drink?"

Connor Nakogee, 13, said the water crisis in Attawapiskat is hitting everyone. 

"I seen a kid using shampoo when he was swimming [in the river]," said Connor. "He said that the water's bad, he said his mom told him not to use it."

Connor said the water issues began long before he was born. Now, his generation faces a future fearing the water that runs from the taps, he said, and it's causing anger. 

Connor said some youth vent their frustrations through acts of vandalism. 

He knows one youth who smashed the Plexiglas backboard of an outdoor basketball net because he was angry with what's been happening in Attawapiskat.

"He barely takes a shower too." 

Georgina Wesley, Marcey's and Karis's mother, says she doesn't trust the drinking water in Attawapiskat. (Nic Meloney/CBC News)

Connor said he wants to eventually leave Attawapiskat and live in Timmins, Ont., which is 495 kilometres south of the community, or Cochrane, just to northeast of Timmins.

"It's because of the water." 

A history of crisis

Attawapiskat has lurched from crisis to crisis for years. In 2011, a housing crisis pushed the Ontario community into the national consciousness after images surfaced of families living in tents and shacks with no running water. 

In 2016, Attawapiskat faced a sudden rise in suicide attempts and ideations that followed the suicide of a 13-year-old girl, Sheridan Hookimaw in the fall of 2015. 

The Attawapiskat band council declared a state of emergency and the community was again thrust into the spotlight. 

That April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a message to the youth of Attawapiskat that said, "We care about you very much and are working hard to help."

Now, the state of emergency is over water. 

This time, it was Seamus O'Regan, the minister of Indigenous services, who visited the community on Sunday and pledged to "fight for Attawapiskat."

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan was at a community meeting in Attawapiskat on Sunday, and pledged to 'fight for Attawapiskat.' (Jonathan Nakogee/Special to CBC News)

John Edwards, an elder, said the people of Attawapiskat, which sits along the shores of a river by the same name, have lived through repeated crises since the signing of Treaty 9 in 1905.

"In the early 1950s when we had measles here, 60 people died in two months," said Edwards, whose grandfather was a First World War veteran. "One body every day for 60 says."

He said an official with the department, then-known as Indian Affairs,, eventually showed up with a doctor. 

Then, a tuberculosis epidemic hit and Edward's father was one of the victims, he said. 

"I was talking to an elder that was 80 years old. He seen much that happened," said Edwards, sitting in a smokehouse, with spruce boughs spread out like a fragrant carpet. 

"People starved in 1905, even though there was a treaty, people died from diseases."

Edwards was also one of the children from Attawapiskat who were sent to St. Anne's Indian residential school, which was south, along the coast, in Fort Albany.

Hunger strike 'a last resort' 

St. Anne's has become one of the most notorious institutions to emerge from the era of residential schools. A homemade electric chair was used on students, and the school was the subject of an Ontario Provincial Police probe in the 1990s that led to several convictions for physical and sexual assaults.

Summer in Attawapiskat has been difficult because of the longstanding water issues. (Jorge Barrera/CBC News)

On Wednesday, in another part of the community, in a building that once housed a training centre run by global diamond giant De Beers, Attawapiskat band Coun. Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin and former chief Theresa Spence were on Day 9 of a water-only hunger strike. 

"This is my last resort...I was getting so frustrated dealing with the bureaucracy, with the government and trying to get things going with my community," said Koostachin-Metatawabin, who has been on council for six years. 

"We just got tired of begging for stuff."

Between December 2012 and January 2013, Spence became one of the focal points of Indigenous rights movement known as Idle No More after she embarked on a liquids-only fast on Victoria Island in Ottawa. 

Later that winter, Spence, Attawapiskat's chief at the time, faced legal threats from De Beers over a multi-week ice road blockade launched by community members. They were upset with the multinational's Victor diamond mine's impact on their family traplines.

De Beers is currently winding down its operations at the mine, which is about 90 kilometres west of the community.

Spence is running for the position of chief in the next election, which is set for August.

On Tuesday, a group of about 25 women met with Koostachin-Metatawabin and Spence at the building. The meeting led to a march that same day to the band office to demand Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull push Ottawa harder for a permanent fix to the community's water problems. 

"We are the life givers and we understand the pain people are going through," said Spence.

Elder John Edwards says Attawapiskat has suffered through crisis since the signing of Treaty 9 in 1905. (Jorge Barrera/CBC News)

Gull said he understands why frustration continues to rise in the community.

"This is something that scared the people ... people have the right to be upset about the water," he said. 

"We are in a humanitarian crisis — water is a right for everybody. If this happened in other municipalities, they wouldn't allow such things to happen. They would fix it tomorrow." 

Unlike a municipality, Attawapiskat doesn't have technocrats in charge of running its public works, said Gull. Instead, it relies on consultants and funding controlled by the department of Indigenous Services, he said. 

During his visit to Attawapiskat on Sunday, O'Regan promised a new water treatment plant, but offered no timeline. 

In a followup letter to Gull, O'Regan also committed to developing a "comprehensive community development plan" to find a new water source for the community, which is at the root of the water problems. 

Gull has seen this movie before: "They say things, they promise things, but then when it gets down to the bureaucracy, it takes forever to actually do what the minister says."

Indigenous Services has known for at least a decade what Attawapiskat needs to turn its water situation around, said Wayne Turner, CEO for the band. 

"The First Nation has identified the need for a new water-treatment plant, a new water source, going back to 2009," he said.

"These items have already been long studied and these documents are available in departmental records."

Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull says the community urgently needs a new source for its water. (Nic Meloney/CBC News)

Gull said Attawapiskat's current water supply comes from a "dead" lake that was originally intended in the 1970s to supply the school, nursing station and residences for teachers. 

"At that time when they put that water intake there was only 700 people in the community, and now it's up to 2,000."

Running water didn't come to every home in Attawapiskat until 1994. 

The intake lake for Attawapiskat has high levels of naturally occurring organic matter that requires a high doses of chlorine to kill the bacteria, creating the chemical byproducts behind the current crisis.

Dogs were also drowned in the lake during culls in past decades, according to local history.

A tearful plea

Gull said the community has long identified the Attawapiskat River as its preferred water source. 

"This is something the community wants; the community wants the water source as soon as possible/ Not to do another study somewhere that can take up to 10 years. Nope, that's not acceptable. We want clean water available to us in this community."

On Sunday, during O'Regan's meeting with the community, Marcey Wesley walked up with her mother to the head table where the minister sat. 

She told O'Regan she didn't believe he was really there to help Attawapiskat.

"You guys are not going to help us. You are just going to fly out, you're just going to go home. You're not going to help us. You're just going to let us die."

Then, she burst into tears. 

"I don't want to die."


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