How to build Ontario: First Nations need clean water

Sixteen First Nations in the riding of Kenora have no access to clean water. What is the federal government doing about it?
By Jon Thompson - Published on Sep 27, 2019
Neskantaga councillor Allan Moonias
Neskantaga councillor Allan Moonias speaks with TVO.org about his First Nation’s water crisis. (John Thompson)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle infrastructure in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; click here to read Part 2.

THUNDER BAY — On September 12, a pump at the water facility on Neskantaga First Nation broke, plunging the community — which has been under a boil-water advisory since 1994, longer than any other community in the country — into crisis. The supply slowed to a trickle; in some homes, it stopped entirely. The unchlorinated water that did flow was, according to residents, unsafe even for bathing: residents reported headaches, stomach problems, and rashes after contact.

Two days later, the chief and council declared a state of emergency and organized an air evacuation of 219 residents to Thunder Bay, 450 kilometres to the west. “We had to [evacuate] because people were mostly scared. They’re traumatized already from the water,“ said Neskantaga councillor Allan Moonias. “Mostly everyone in Neskantaga has an illness, and that’s coming from the water. That’s what people have to understand: it’s the water causing our illness.”

Even in Thunder Bay, some evacuated residents avoided the tap water. “My son is 23 years old, and he has never drank water from the tap. He has kids of his own now. He still lives like that today,” says resident Jennifer Sakanee. “There was this jug of water on the table for us to drink. No one has touched it, because it wasn’t bottled water. We’re already mentally programmed like that.”

The evacuation has highlighted an issue many feel should be central to the federal-election campaign: access to clean drinking water in First Nations.

During the 2015 campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to bring an end to all 105 long-term boil-water advisories then in place across the country. His government’s first budget allocated nearly $1.9 billion toward the goal, and 87 have since been lifted.

But there are now 39 new ones, meaning that 56 communities remain affected. In this year’s budget, the government allocated an additional $739 million over the next five years; at a rally in Thunder Bay on September 25, eight days after Neskantaga residents had returned home, Trudeau said the government was “on track to eliminate all [advisories] by 2021.” But many say that the government is not doing enough — and point to the situation in northwestern Ontario as proof of the need for action.

Ten advisories have been lifted in the Kenora riding since the Liberals came to power: today, 16 of the 40 First Nations in the area have no access to clean water, down from 26. Of these, perhaps none is more widely known than Grassy Narrows First Nation, 80 kilometres north of Kenora. In the 1960s, a paper mill upstream in nearby Dryden dumped tonnes of methylmercury into the English/Wabigoon river system, compromising the water supplies of both Grassy Narrows and and its neighbour, Wabaseemoong. Residents are still dealing with the long-term effects of mercury poisoning.

Grassy Narrows chief Rudy Turtle, who’s running as the NDP candidate in Kenora, says that the government’s strategy is too concerned with speed and doesn’t focus enough on the long-term.

“They just can’t meet the demand — communities are growing,” Turtle says. “What’s happening, for example, in my community: they’re fixing the water-purification system, but it’s almost like a Band-Aid solution, because we’ve already told the federal government that we need a whole new water-treatment plant. In five years, the treatment plant we have right now isn’t going to meet the demand.”

Turtle says that the NDP hasn’t developed a strict timeline but that it would prioritize sustainable solutions and carefully consider the implications of population growth. “They’re not looking forward to the future,” he says. “They’re just fixing as we go.”

Eric Melillo, the Conservative candidate, questions how dedicated the Liberals are to addressing the crisis. “If this government was serious about ending long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations, there would be more focus on community-specific needs,” he told TVO.org via email. “We often see funding and nice words coming from the Liberals, but that hasn’t translated to meaningful improvements. Infrastructure in Neskantaga must be built to withstand the conditions and circumstances of the community. Otherwise, we will continue to see the same problems over and over.”

Bob Nault, the Liberal candidate, was not available for an interview. On September 23, his campaign released a statement saying that an $8.8 million renovation to Neskantaga’s water-treatment facility, funded under the previous Liberal government, would be finished in October. Charlie Angus, the incumbent NDP candidate for Timmins–James Bay, on September 17 released a statement saying that he was “shocked” by incumbent Liberal candidate for Kenora Bob Nault’s “silence.” Nault responded in a prepared statement, saying that he’s been “anything but silent.”

Though Indigenous Services Canada and Trudeau say that all remaining long-term advisories will be lifted by March 2021, some who work in the field say that’s unlikely to happen.

Aaron Wesley, the utilities coordinator for Matawa First Nations, which includes nine First Nations, Neskantaga among them, says that the water systems in the five remote-access communities he oversees have never been sufficient: “They never did meet regulations. In the 1990s, there was a move from the government to build infrastructure, but the development was sub-par.”

While he believes the federal government has made progress, he says that the situation involves a number of complicated factors. “There are a lot of things to look at, and some of the things they haven’t looked at or been able to anticipate,” he says, citing engineering, design, and contracting challenges. “It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that water plants take a lot of work, lots of paperwork prior to even getting projects shovel-ready.”

In the 56 communities still under boil-water advisories, the effects are far-reaching. According to Moonias, the lack of clean water is a contributor to Neskantaga’s youth-suicide crisis.

“Our young generation, I’m getting to hear them say the government doesn’t care about them,” Allan Moonias says. “Fourteen-year-olds say, ‘Why doesn’t the government help us with our water issue?’”

“I don’t know why they don’t want to help us. I don’t know why they don’t want to fix our water plant. For 25 years already — it should have been done a long time ago. Maybe it could have saved lives.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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