The Chief of Neskantaga First Nation says the federal government must meet a number of demands before approximately 200 members can return home after they were evacuated earlier this week due to the shutdown of their water treatment plant.
The northwestern Ontario community, which has been under a boil water advisory for 26 years, was forced to shut down the plant after it found an unknown oily substance on top of the water reservoir.
Leadership has since declared a state of emergency and evacuated at-risk members including elders, infants and those with chronic health concerns to Thunder Bay, about 450 kilometres away.
Peter Moonias, a community Elder and former chief, says Neskantaga is completely shut down.
“We have absolutely nothing in the community. Services are closed, school is closed, everything is closed. There’s no water at all in the community,” he said from a hotel in Thunder Bay.
While most of the members have left there are a couple of dozen who chose to stay in the First Nation.
They are forced to fill up water jugs from the nearby lake in order to bathe or flush their toilets.
The is a common occurrence for the community because of the decades long boil water advisory, which is the longest one in Canada.
Chief Chris Moonias has watched members, including his own 23-year-old daughter, grow up without clean drinking water.
It has taken a toll on him.
He addressed this in a tweet this week, “[expletive] I hate being so emotional…I’ve never been this emotional while talking in my life…talking about our health emergency due to no water for past three days.”
Chief Moonias elaborated on the emotional impacts from a hotel in Thunder Bay.
“I’ve seen young mothers go to the lake to scoop water from the lake so they can bathe their children and so they can ration the bottled water that’s being provided,” he said.
“That is heartbreaking. If I wasn’t emotional about [that] I don’t think I’d consider myself a leader or a human.”
The community has had ongoing issues with their water treatment plant.
In 2017, the federal government announced $9 million in funding to upgrade the plant.
People were expected to have clean water by 2018 but the project fell behind schedule.
This week’s evacuation is the second one in less than two years.
In September 2019 residents were sent to Thunder Bay after a broken water pump left little to no water pressure in homes.
Chief Moonias says the community needs a new plant and distribution system to address the on-going issues.
“Right now we are being offered band-aide solutions,” he said.
Adding stress to the situation is the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.
Coun. Gary Quisess says they are dealing with two crises.
“You’re trying to prevent the virus getting to your membership plus you’re worried about the community. Are we going to have water when we go back?”
As of Friday the community continues to be under a do not consume order, according to a social media post by Chief Moonias.
Leadership sent a letter to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Thursday outlining seven conditions Ottawa must meet before they will consider sending people home including 24-hour access to running water even if a boil water advisory exists, the installation of portable water treatment units and the decontamination of homes in disrepair caused by water concerns.
Indigenous Services Canada says they are working with the community to ensure they have the supports they need until water can be restored.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced questioning on the Neskantaga situation during a briefing.
He admitted he didn’t know much about the evacuation but recommitted to ending boil water advisories.
“It is difficult as we all know to end these long term boil water advisories otherwise other governments would have done it…I can’t share with you exactly the details on this particular community but I can assure you that Minister Miller and others are working extremely closely with that community in order to resolve the crisis that they’re facing right now.”