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Tyler Blanchette, left, joins Geelasia Boileau and Nicky Nauyak in gathering water at Apex River in the hamlet just outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Oct. 13.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

With empty pails and jugs in hand, residents of Iqaluit waited in long lines Wednesday for water drawn from the nearby Sylvia Grinnell River after they were warned not to drink their tap water because it could contain gasoline.

The Nunavut capital declared a local state of emergency the night before over possible contamination of its main water supply. Nunavut Public Health said “observations” of suspected petroleum hydrocarbons in the water system made it unsafe for consumption and bathing of infants and pregnant women.

The city made treated water from the river available to residents at depot filling stations, but it still needs to be boiled for use. The Nunavut government said it will provide the city with 80,000 litres of water, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell told media.

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Schools across Iqaluit were closed Wednesday and government offices shut down by early afternoon because of the water problem. Both Arctic Ventures and Northmart, the city’s two major grocery stores, were out of bottled water by midday. Both stores also sold out of plastic jugs.

Bottled water normally sells at an extremely high cost across Nunavut. For example, a 40-pack of 500-millilitre bottles of water at Northmart typically sells for $48.79 before tax, while a 24-pack is $27.99.

Aaron Watson, who since 2004 has lived with his family in Apex, just a couple kilometres from Iqaluit, said there was some shock and panic buying in the community upon hearing the news. However, many people were helping out and offering rides to others, knowing not everyone has the means to get to the river or the filling stations.

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A truck collects water at the Sylvia Grinnell River outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Oct. 13. The city of Iqaluit is delivering chlorinated water by truck to residents who normally receive this service.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Watson was one of more than a dozen people at the local river – already a favourite spot to collect clean water for outdoor tea – filling up pails and jugs. City workers were there, too, loading their water trucks with river water. The Watsons are among many households that rely on a city truck to fill their water tanks on a regular basis.

“It’s well known as a safe source for water,” he said.

Complaints on social media about a fuel smell coming from the water in some homes have circulated since Oct. 2, but Nunavut Public Health said test results found a low risk of contamination and that the water was safe to drink. On Oct. 10, the city said it continued to test and investigate the reports of fuel odours in the drinking water and was working with an engineering firm and public-health officials. It said water testing continued to be “satisfactory.”

That apparently changed on Tuesday afternoon, according to local media, when public works staff detected a fuel odour when they opened a sealed access vault containing chemicals used for treating the water.

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Leveena and Lucassie Ikkidluak fill water bottles at the Sylvia Grinnell River on Oct. 13.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

Geoffrey Byrne, the city’s economic development officer, said the additional samples drawn Tuesday were sent out via airplane to a lab outside the region and results are expected by the end of the week. The source of the suspected contamination hasn’t been identified.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, Iqaluit’s deputy mayor who is on leave as she runs for a seat in Nunavut’s legislature, helped deliver water to families and elders on Wednesday. She said water infrastructure was the number one issue in the city’s most recent budget.

She said Iqaluit needs $100-million to address its aging water and sewage infrastructure, which is holding up building new houses in the city of about 9,000 people, which has a high Indigenous population.

“Iqaluit needs at least another 1,400 homes and we can’t build any new homes because we just don’t have the infrastructure to support that,” she said, noting a need to construct underground water and sewage systems. “We need partnerships for that, investments from the federal government … from territorial government.”

Ms. Brewster said the water rate in Iqaluit is among the highest in the country at two cents a litre, which covers repairs and annual maintenance, and overcrowded households are facing huge water bills that they cannot afford. She said expecting crowded households to conserve water because of inadequate infrastructure is unrealistic and the water crisis is one more example of the poor health determinants that Inuit face, in addition to poverty, food insecurity and trauma.

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Iqaluit resident Colleen Healey gets her water bottle filled by City of Iqaluit staff on Oct. 12. The city was forced to truck water from the Sylvia Grinnell River to a fill location outside the visitors' centre and library in the heart of Nunavut's capital city.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

“We need infrastructure that allows us to be able to afford to lower our water rates. Right now, what we have is a population of people who are already struggling to make ends meet in a place with one of the highest costs of living in the country,” she said.

“We need to have an infrastructure that supports those who are most at risk in our community, and the truth is those most at risk are Inuit living in Iqaluit.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his party’s member of Parliament for Iqaluit, Lori Idlout, issued a statement calling on Ottawa to respond to the state of emergency and provide short-term supplies of water and use all its resources to fix an all-too-common problem in rural and remote communities, particularly northern and Indigenous ones.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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