First Nation wants Ottawa to help clean up plastic waste left behind by 27-year boil water advisory

A remote northern Ontario First Nation wants Ottawa to help it find an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the thousands of empty water bottles that have piled up over 27 years under a long-term drinking water advisory.

Neskantaga has relied on plastic water bottles and jugs to ensure safe drinking water for 27 years

Jugs and boxes of water bottles stack the community centre in Neskantaga First Nation. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

A remote northern Ontario First Nation wants Ottawa to help it find an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the thousands of empty water bottles that have piled up over 27 years under a long-term drinking water advisory.

Neskantaga, a fly-in Oji-Cree community with approximately 300 members located about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., marked a grim milestone on Tuesday — the longest drinking water advisory of any First Nation.

"It shouldn't be like that in a country like Canada," Chief Wayne Moonias said.

Like many other First Nations, Neskantaga does not have waste pickup or recycling. Most of its garbage, including plastic, is incinerated or ends up in a dump.

Ottawa sends weekly water shipments to the community but doesn't bring back all the used plastic bottles.

Moonias said that with its lack of potable water, crumbling infrastructure and high rate of suicide, Neskantaga has too much on its plate right now to deal with plastic waste.

"It's a concern for our community because we all know that we need to do something to protect the environment," he said.

"The community cannot do it alone because the community is spending their efforts and energies on trying to address the well-being of our community."

A child carries jugs of bottled water in Neskantaga First Nation. (Submitted by Marcus Moonias)

In the last federal budget, Ottawa set aside $560 million over seven years for solid waste management projects in First Nations. But there is still no federal plan to address plastic waste in communities.

Some First Nations, including Neskantaga, are calling for that to change.

They say they want Ottawa to work with them to curb plastic waste in First Nations, especially plastic waste generated by drinking water advisories.

'We need to do better'

"We are hurting our land by dumping all this plastic when we could be doing something about it," said Charla Moonias, a 24-year-old Neskantaga member who grew up on bottled water.

"We need to do better for our future generations."

She said she would like to see workers hired to sort out recycling and ship plastic waste out on aircraft or winter ice roads.

WATCH | Neskantaga First Nation asks for help with its plastic problem:

Neskantaga First Nation has no clean drinking water and an overflow of plastic bottles

5 months ago
Duration 2:01
A lack of clean drinking water has left Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario with an abundance of plastic water bottles in their landfill. The community is calling on the federal government to assist with their disposal.

Bearskin Lake First Nation, a fly-in community of roughly 400 people located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, also wants to change the way it handles plastic waste created by more than two decades of a drinking water advisory.

"There's no such thing as recycling up here in the community," Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said.

Indigenous Services Canada has a First Nations Waste Management Initiative to help develop sustainable waste management systems. The department told CBC News it has spent $384,000 since 2019 to support a community-led solid waste management planning project for Neskantaga for storing and handling plastics.

In 2021, it also gave $137,000 to Matawa Tribal Council to fund a full-time solid waste coordinator position to help all Matawa First Nations, including Neskantaga and Bearskin Lake, with waste management strategies.

Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin of Bearskin Lake First Nation, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., said his community doesn't have a recycling program so all of its plastic ends up in the trash. (CBC )

Alternatives and prevention needed, professor says

But plastic recycling doesn't have a good track record, said associate professor Shirley Thompson of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

"We have to see alternatives and prevention," Thompson said.

Thompson said the burden of reducing plastic waste should fall on retail stores operating in northern and remote communities, including Neskantaga.

They could start deposit-return programs for people to return water bottles for a small refund, she said.

The Northern Store in Neskantaga First Nation. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"Having a federal regulation that requires it will result in better follow-up," Thompson said. 

For far too long, Thompson said, Ottawa has pushed waste management in First Nations down the priority list. 

She researched waste management in more than a dozen First Nations and found that many have landfills that are not at a safe distance from roads or rivers, which can put them at risk of contamination.

She also said First Nations communities, including Neskantaga, often burn their garbage, generating toxic chemical waste.

"This is a necessary evil in the fact that they don't have money for covering up the landfill on a regular basis," she said. 

"This is a result of policy. There is not sufficient funding for waste."

Environmental Defence Canada is also calling on Ottawa to end the long-term boil water advisories that cause mounting plastic waste.

"The federal government needs to throw in all of their efforts and resources that they can behind addressing this issue," said Michelle Woodhouse, program manager for freshwater protection and the Great Lakes at Environmental Defence Canada.

No word on when Neskantaga's advisory will be lifted

The ultimate solution for Neskantaga would be to lift its boil water advisory. Chief Moonias said he can't offer a timeline for ending it.

Indigenous Services Canada spent $20.9 million to update the community's water treatment plant and another $4.1 million for related wastewater system upgrades. The water treatment system upgrade is complete.

Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias wants the federal government to develop a plan with First Nations to reduce plastic pollution. (Christina Jung/CBC)

But there is still some work to do to address problems such as leaks, and to make sure the upgrade works with the aging distribution system.

A 14-day performance test was scheduled for Jan. 10 but was pushed back due to the pandemic.

Moonias said he hopes it will begin in the next month or so.

"The faith and trust in the system is very low right now," Moonias said. "Our community has suffered far too long."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.