Ottawa to probe contractors hired to fix longest-standing boil water advisory

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is preparing to launch a third party investigation into the business practices of consultants and engineering companies hired to end Canada’s longest-standing boil water advisory in a First Nation — a probe that could extend to other communities, CBC News has learned. 

Investigation may broaden to include other First Nations on long-term advisories

In a letter to Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller commits to undertaking a probe into the way contractors and engineering companies operate to fix water advisories in First Nations. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is preparing to launch a third-party investigation into the business practices of consultants and engineering companies hired to end Canada's longest-standing boil water advisory in a First Nation— a probe that could extend to other communities, CBC News has learned. 

Officials from Indigenous Services Canada have reached out to the chief and council of Neskantaga First Nation, located approximately 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay., Ont., and its tribal council to schedule a meeting next week to develop the terms of reference.

Since contractors and engineers work in many communities, the department tells CBC News there is the possibility the probe will include other First Nations where these companies have worked.

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said he would welcome a broader investigation.

WATCH | Ottawa to probe contractors operating First Nations' drinking water:

Federal government to probe contractors operating First Nations' drinking water

2 years ago
Duration 2:06
Frustrated members of Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario are protesting a company hired four years ago to fix their decades-long water issues, demanding answers after new problems forced them to move out. Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he wants to work with communities to probe how contractors operate.

"If it means to bring other communities or other organizations into this to make sure that the business practices are corrected then I have no problem talking with other communities," Moonias said.

"It's something that needs to be done."

Role of contractors questioned

The federal government's pledge comes after Moonias wrote to Miller on Oct. 22 demanding "an immediate investigation into business practices of contractors, engineering companies" hired to fix more than two decades of water problems that just got worse.

Nearly all of Neskantaga's 300 members have temporarily moved to a Thunder Bay hotel after an oily substance was discovered in the community's reservoir on Oct. 19 and running water was cut off.

Indigenous Services Canada says the substance is a non-toxic mineral oil coming from a distribution pump in the reservoir.

"There are things that we don't understand that are going on," Moonias told CBC News.

"We take the word of the engineers or consultants … Since we've been doing that, we've been under a boil water advisory for 25 years."

Miller replied on Friday, supporting the chief's call for a probe. 

Only about two dozen community members remain in Neskantaga with Canadian Rangers after an oily sheen was discovered on Oct. 19 in the reservoir. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

"We agree that this is important and would like to work with you and other communities and organizations to undertake this," Miller wrote in a letter to Moonias obtained by CBC News.

The costs of the investigation will be covered by Indigenous Services Canada, a spokesperson for the department said.

'Corners get cut'

Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus called on Ottawa to probe the long-standing problems with Neskantaga's water treatment plant, along with other infrastructure projects in northern Ontario First Nations. 

"The problem is we have a system for delivering infrastructure that always goes with the lowest bidder," Angus said.

"When you have a big-ticket item, like a water plant that's very expensive to build in a community, costs and corners get cut and that's the danger. Neskantaga has been a nightmare situation."

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias is demanding a probe into the business practices of contractors hired to help lift the First Nation's longstanding boil water advisory. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Last year, Neskantaga fired the contractor Kingdom Construction Ltd., over delays.

Moonias said there have been many issues with other companies hired to work on the plant and the cost of upgrading the system has almost doubled from $8.8 million to $16.5 million. 

Members of Neskantaga First Nation unleashed their frustration on Tuesday in front of the office of Colliers Project Leaders, a project management company hired in 2016 by the community to upgrade its water treatment plant, shouting "fix our water."

Moonias spoke to one of the engineers via Zoom.

"Why did it have to come to this?" Moonias asked. "I thought you were our help? I thought you were on our side?"

Children held signs that read "Respect our human right" and "How can I believe in reconciliation when my community doesn't have one of the most basic necessities?"

"We want to go home very bad because this is very, very stressful," said 12-year-old Lyndon Sakanee.

"Fix our water. … We're not animals. We're not things. We're just like you guys. We need your help"

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the system that is set up to award contracts to First Nations is flawed. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Colliers Project Leaders wrote the company respects the right to legally protest and shares the desire to bring clean drinking water to the community.

"We know the Neskantaga First Nation has dealt with water quality issues for many years and our team is committed to helping them address these challenges by bringing a world-class water treatment plant online as safely and quickly as possible," wrote communications director Pamela Smith.

But Moonias said he still can't understand why it's taking so long.

"I don't think it's because of where we are situated," Moonias said. "I think it's because of the lack of will to finish this."

In the same letter to Moonias, Miller said running water should be restored to the community by Nov. 12, but a boil water advisory will still be in place as testing and commissioning of a new water treatment system continues. 

If testing goes on schedule and the results are good, Miller said it is his understanding that clean drinking water should be available in Neskantaga by Dec. 11. 

"With the full commissioning and testing of your new plant, the conditions will be met for you to lift the long-term drinking water advisory, which we agree has been in place for far too long," Miller wrote.

Miller also wrote Indigenous Services Canada will fund a joint assessment with the department and First Nation of the contributing factors to the current water and public health crisis in the community.


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.