The chief and council of a First Nation in a remote part of northwestern Ontario said Thursday that they won’t send evacuees home until the community has access to running water 24/7.
The condition is among a list of “minimum demands” that leadership of Neskantaga First Nation sent to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller days after an “oily sheen” was discovered in the community’s water reservoir, prompting officials to shut off the pipes while tests are completed in southern Ontario.
“Our people need help now. We are First Peoples living in third-world conditions treated as second-class citizens in a supposedly rich country,” Neskantaga Chief Christopher Moonias said in a written statement.
Chief Moonias also demanded that homes have their water-related hardware repaired, and that two mobile membrane water treatment units be installed immediately to increase access to clean drinking water.
“Government must commit and immediately move forward with examining the feasibility of continuing with repairing a flawed system versus the design and construction of a new water distribution system that meets the highest current standard,” the demands read, calling the current response a “patchwork of ‘Band-Aid’ solutions.”
Chief Moonias said 175 vulnerable residents were evacuated from the community this week, out of an on-reserve population of about 460. Others requested evacuations or left on their own because of the situation.
They were sent roughly 430 kilometres south to Thunder Bay.
Even before the water stopped flowing altogether, Chief Moonias said in an earlier interview, the water had to be turned off overnight due to leaks depleting the water supply.
Representatives from Mr. Miller’s office have said they’re working to ensure Neskantaga’s needs are met, but did not comment on the list of demands.
The community has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years, and Nishnawbe Aski Nation – which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario – says a water treatment plant constructed in 2016 was plagued by infrastructure issues before ultimately failing last year.
“Funding to undertake the necessary repairs was provided as a part the recent $4 million funding increase towards the project that aims to lift the long-term boil-water advisory in that community, bringing the total investment to over $16.4 million,” Mr. Miller’s spokesperson said.
But NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the help isn’t coming fast enough.
“Chief and Council are stretched to their limit to ensure the safety of their members,” he said in a written statement. “The federal government and everyone involved must work immediately with the leadership to meet these conditions so community members can repatriate as quickly as possible.”