‘They’re really struggling’: Inside the Neskantaga First Nation water crisis

The community was promised an upgraded treatment plant by 2018. Two years later, its members have once again been evacuated. Why doesn’t Neskantaga have clean water yet?
By Nick Dunne - Published on Dec 09, 2020
In early November, youth from Neskantaga First Nation rallied in Thunder Bay calling for clean water for their community. (Facebook.com/Matawa First Nations)

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THUNDER BAY — When Chris Moonias woke up thirsty at 4 a.m. in his room at the Victoria Inn on a recent fall day, the first thing he did was look for a bottle of water. Though tap water was available in the bathroom, the Neskantaga First Nation chief grabbed his key, left his room, and walked to a nearby boardroom to find a bottle. He couldn’t bring himself to use the tap.

His community has been under a 25-year boil-water advisory, Canada’s longest, and a distrust of running water, he says, has become pervasive among its members: “That’s the continued trauma. I'm not the only one that goes through this. If you go room to room here at the hotel, I guarantee you 100 per cent of those rooms have cases of bottled water.”

On October 20, he began evacuating Neskantaga First Nation for the second time since becoming chief in April 2019: an oily sheen had been spotted on the surface of the water in the reservoir of the community’s treatment plant, forcing its shutdown. By October 25, most from the remote northern community of around 400 were staying at the Victoria Inn, in Thunder Bay — according Monika Lucas, a source close to the community who assists with communications, about 260 members are still there.

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Being away from home amid a pandemic has been taxing, Moonias says — even more so in recent weeks: on November 26, a community member, Vida Moonias, 31, who had been living in Thunder Bay died by suicide. “They're really struggling out here,” says Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, of Nishawbe Aski Nation. “It's over a month now. And [the death] just reinforces their requests for the work to be done quickly at the community level.”

a building covered in hand-painted signs
Community members who have stayed in Neskantaga during the evacuation have posted signs protesting the boil-water advisory. (Courtesy of Chris Moonias)

Neskantaga had expected to have clean water two years ago: in 2016, Carolyn Bennett, then the minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, promised that their plant would be upgraded to use a new treatment method and be operational by 2018. But the project has been marred by design, construction, and installation issues — underscoring the barriers to accessing clean drinking water that many Indigenous communities continue to face. Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to office in 2015, 97 long-term boil-water advisories have been lifted. According to Indigenous Services Canada, though, there are currently 59 advisories in 41 First Nations and Inuit communities.

Neskantaga’s initial treatment-plant system, built in 1993, had never produced potable water, Moonias says, and, in 1995, the boil-water advisory was declared.

“We never got approval for a new plant, so what we were trying to do was change filter media, change pumps, and just make repairs and maintenance over the years,” explains Aaron Wesley, who has overseen Neskantaga’s plant and the utilities of eight other Matawa communities since 2003 as the tribal council’s utilities coordinator. An ISC spokesperson told TVO.org that a 2013 ISC-funded feasibility study confirmed the system could not treat water to the regulations and guidelines of that time — and that Neskantaga had submitted funding proposals for an upgraded plant design each year from 2014 to 2016.

The design phase was complicated, says Wesley: “You're looking at a detailed engineering design that needs to happen. That takes a while. There’s lots of review from different third parties.” Kingdom Construction, which was initially hired to build the treatment system, was removed from the project in 2018, according to Moonias, because certain tasks were taking too long. “The community wasn't satisfied,” he says. “So we took the work out of their hands, and we moved on.” The company’s president, Gerald Landry, confirmed to TVO.org that it had been removed from the project in 2018, adding, "We've resolved all our issues with them and there's nothing left to talk about."

A new contractor, Razar Contracting Services, was hired. “The retrofit is still not finished,” says Lucas. “They have the water flowing, but it's not finished.” Before Neskantaga community members will be able to return home, a 14-day test must be performed — and passed. But, Wesley says, there have been several roadblocks: approvals for a review of the sewer-lift station, for example, hit delays.

The main challenge has involved calibrating the SCADA system — the plant’s computer, which automates certain processes — and balancing the chemicals involved in the new treatment method. “It's a slow process to nail down the chemistry,” says Wesley.

As of now, ISC says, water distribution to the community has been restored, and the sewage-lift station is operational. The 14-day performance testing of the plant should be complete by December 13 — and the community has a tentative return date of December 18. But, Moonias says, “I'd be lying to say that we're going home for sure. I am skeptical at this point.” According to ISC, once the water quality meets necessary testing standards, the advisory can be lifted by the chief and council upon the recommendation of Matawa’s environmental public-health officer.           

Jamie Saunders, infrastructure adviser at Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 communities — 13 of which, including Neskantaga, are under boil-water advisories — says his primary concern is the lack of funding and training available in the operation and maintenance of water treatments plants. Without either, he says, “they're essentially running the wheels off the bus as soon as the lifespan of that capital infrastructure begins.”

two people walking in a hotel parking lot
Two evacuees from Neskantaga walk outside the Victoria Inn in Thunder Bay on November 26. (Nick Dunne)

Last week, Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous services, announced $1.5 billion in investments in water infrastructure and $114.1 million per year in maintenance and operations funding for First Nations. But with that announcement came an admission of failure: the commitment to end all boil-water advisories by March 2021, he acknowledged, won’t be met.

Moonias has officially requested that ISC review its practices, a move Fiddler backs. “It says a lot when you take a look at the chronology of events, going back 25, 26 years — or even before that, when their system was being designed and constructed — that there were red flags even then,” Fiddler says. Responding to the announcement that the target to end boil-water advisories won’t be met, he says, “We should, in fact, be doubling down — especially while we're in a pandemic. That, to me, is critically important in our fight against this virus.”

Anne Scotton, ISC’s Ontario regional director general, was moved off the Neskantaga file after Moonias complained that the firm initially recommended to perform the service review — MNP — had had oversight over Neskantaga’s finances for 16 years under third-party management. But Moonias isn’t fully satisfied: he’s asked for her dismissal. “That's the paternalistic or colonial attitude from ISC,” he says. “MNP was in charge for 16 years when we had a boil-water advisory. How come they didn't do anything?” (TVO.org reached out to ISC for comment but had not received one by publication time.)

Throughout these challenges, Fiddler says, he’s been grateful for Moonias’s work: “All of us appreciate his incredible leadership that he's shown. I know that whatever changes or whatever good things come out on this project in his community will also have a positive impact on other communities.”

Back at the Victoria Inn, Moonias worries for his community. “I'm especially concerned with the children and what they are going through, what they may be seeing and how that affects them,” he says. “I want to make sure that they get the services they deserve in terms of properly assessing them and getting the mental-health help they need.”

Since the community received exclusive access to the hotel on November 23, people have been able to leave their rooms and gather together. Before that, they held a Halloween party in the banquet hall. “It was totally awesome,” Moonias says. “The kids had fun. I really enjoyed seeing the kids running around. We had a couple of guests that came in that were coordinating this thing, and the kids were chasing them.” He himself dressed up as Batman, though he doesn’t see himself as a superhero.

“I’m just a person trying to do the right things,” he says. “That’s all I’ve been doing for my nation.”

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