Politics

Indigenous services minister vows to replace Attawapiskat's water treatment plant

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan says he's committed to building a new water plant and finding an alternative source of fresh water for the troubled reserve of Attawapiskat — but he's not ready to offer a timeline for those promises.

Seamus O' Regan also promises a short-term solution to provide safe drinking water to the First Nation

Nigel Nakogee, 17, speaks with Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull in front of the band office on July 9, 2019 as he protested against the community's water quality problems. (Raphael Wheesk/Facebook)

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan says he's committed to building a new water plant and finding an alternative source of fresh water for the troubled reserve of Attawapiskat — but he's not ready to offer a timeline for those promises.

Following his trip to the northern Ontario community Sunday, O'Regan announced what he said would be short-term and long-term solutions to provide safe drinking water to residents.

"I told them I am committing to a water treatment plant," O'Regan told CBC News Tuesday. "Council and chief have agreed to participate in a comprehensive community plan. And that allows us to pull everything together to figure out what we need to do."

In July, the Attawapiskat band council declared a state of emergency after tests showed elevated levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) in the community's drinking water, exceeding Canadian standards.

THMs and HAAs are byproducts of adding disinfectants like chlorine to water. Exposure to these chemicals in large quantities over time can increase the risk of cancer.

Perry Bellegarde, AFN national chief, looks on as Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan speaks at press conference on February 28, 2019. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Attawapiskat, located about 490 kilometres north of Timmins, Ont., is a fly-in community that's connected by ice road to Moosonee, Ont., in the winter. Two thousand residents live in the Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay.

O'Regan said that, as a temporary measure, his department has allocated $1.5 million dollars to permit a technical team now visiting the community to flush the water system. The same team also will inspect the existing treatment plant to determine whether there are interim fixes that could be implemented.

The community's drinking water source also will be replaced as a precaution, Indigenous Services says, since the reverse-osmosis filtration system the fill stations rely on has seen more use lately.

"Those are short-term measures to give them assurance about the water system now," O'Regan said.

Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull said he's "optimistic" about the minister's visit and commitments but said O'Regan was offering a "Band-Aid solution."

Gull told CBC Tuesday that the community needs bottled water and $8 million to fix the problems with the current treatment plant.

"But there needs to be more than just words," Gull said. "The funding has to be put in place to get things moving." 

The CBC's David Thurton can be reached on FacebookTwitter or at david.thurton@cbc.ca.

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

With files from Jorge Barrera