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It’s been weeks since a First Nation in Northern Ontario evacuated all but a few people due to contaminated water, and the repair job is racing against the seasons so residents can come home before winter sets in. Neskantaga is also pressing Ottawa to address long-term problems so they never have to do this again

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At Neskantaga First Nation, Joe Yellowhead is one of 24 people who stayed behind after the chief and council evacuated the Northern Ontario community due to water contamination. He and others made signs all around town to voice their frustration.Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

On a table in the corner of the banquet room of a Thunder Bay hotel sits a collection of posters with hand-written messages like “Shame on you #Trudeau” and “We deserve clean water." They were drawn by children from Neskantaga First Nation, pleading for safe, clean tap water to drink – a basic human right no one under the age of 25 has had in the remote Northern Ontario community.

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias says if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, he’d be on his way to Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park with the posters to show the governments how living under the longest-standing boil water advisory in the country has affected his community.

Residents have to rely on bottled water for drinking. For cooking and bathing, they have to fill up jugs and pails at an outdoor reverse-osmosis system that sits in a shed up a hill.

The First Nation is in the fourth week of an evacuation to Thunder Bay that began after the community’s water plant was shut down because an oily sheen was visible in the water reservoir.

Test results confirmed that the substance was mineral oil, a hydrocarbon used in water pumps, according to Aaron Wesley from Matawa First Nations Management, an organization that provides technical services to a group of nine communities in the region. He said efforts are under way to fix the pump and get residents back to their community before winter sets in.

The urgency is great. As temperatures drop below freezing and snow begins to build, so does the risk of pipes freezing in unattended homes. A group of two dozen community members stayed behind to help ensure infrastructure and households are maintained and pets are fed. Canadian Rangers and other emergency workers are also on the ground.

Meanwhile, in Thunder Bay, families are worried about the risk of contracting COVID-19 as they pass their days in a hotel, their children losing school time because of another water shutdown and evacuation.

Chief Moonias has been calling for an end to the “patchwork of Band-Aid solutions” he says has plagued Neskantaga’s water treatment and distribution system for decades.

Following the evacuation last month, he asked the federal government to examine whether it’s worth “repairing a flawed system versus the design and construction of a new water distribution system that meets the highest current standards.”

He’s also called for immediate investigations into the encumbered project that is funded by Indigenous Services Canada and managed by Neskantaga First Nation through tendered engineers and contractors.

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Jugs of clean drinking water, flown in from Thunder Bay, sit in the Neskantaga community centre. The local water supply comes from Attawapiskat Lake, but Neskantaga has spent 25 years under a boil-water advisory.

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Before the evacution, Chief Chris Moonias, left, filled his bathtub and discovered an oily sheen on the water's surface. Tests confirmed it was a hydrocarbon used in water pumps.

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More protest signs are visible through the cracked windshield of a vehicle belonging to Derek Moonias, another of those who stayed behind. He and the others keep the community's homes safe and feed the animals while residents wait in Thunder Bay.

Neskantaga First Nation is a small fly-in community about 430 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. It has 460 members and about 160 of them live off-reserve in locations like Thunder Bay. The Anishinaabe community sits by Attawapiskat Lake, the source of its water.

At its only school, “Do not drink the water” signs are taped to the wall beside the taps and sinks, and a reverse-osmosis unit sits in the hallway for students to fill up their personal water bottles. Another reverse-osmosis unit is stationed in the community where people fill up their water jugs, sometimes getting there by foot, using wagons and sleds to haul pails of water for bathing and cooking.

But these days even the reverse-osmosis unit isn’t working, forcing those who stayed behind during the evacuation to haul water from the lake to do things like flush the toilets as they work to prevent pipes from freezing.

Peter Moonias is a former chief of Neskantaga and says the whole water system was flawed from the beginning and its problems were compounded by indifferent engineers and government officials over the decades. He says an inadequate filtration system is what led Neskantaga to go under a boil water advisory back in February of 1995, which became a long-term advisory a year later.

Mr. Moonias recalls that, as chief in 2004, he had to turn the water supply off temporarily after it had been contaminated with gasoline and an unusually high level of trihalomethane (THMs), a group of compound chemicals that can occur naturally in chlorinated water systems and is linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Mr. Moonias says federal governments have failed to take Neskantaga’s water needs seriously and recalls a community visit during his six years as chief from staff with what was then called the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. He said one of the workers told him, “I use that [filtration system] in my camp. It’s good, it works. It should be good for Neskantaga.”

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Technician Mike Bazdarick of Nibi Services (nibi being the Ojibway word for water) takes a sample from the water plant's reservoir tanks.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Wesley says the project team working to resolve the current crisis consists of Matawa First Nations, water plant contractors, the engineer and project management firm, Neskantaga First Nation, and a senior engineer with Indigenous Services Canada.

“It’s really a bunch of different things that are happening in the community with pumps, water leaks, sewage station, housing problems,” Mr. Wesley said about the issues that have plagued the water system and delayed the lifting of the boil water advisory another two years.

The project team suspect that slow leaks in the water distribution system forced the community to start shutting the water off at night – which Mr. Wesley says could be a contributing factor to the leaks. He says there are eight different locations that will likely require digging to identify and repair the leaks.

Mr. Wesley says the system’s sewage lift stations have been a concern for years. They were cleaned out last year but flow rates are still not good and there is concern from the community over increased flow to the sewage system from the new water treatment plant, which will produce backwash waste water that will flow into the wastewater sewage system once it’s operational.

Construction of the new water treatment plant began in 2017 and was delayed in early 2019 when Neskatanga fired the contractors for falling behind schedule. Now that the water treatment plant is complete, the final stage in the project will be running a performance test of the new water treatment system for 14 days to ensure it operates as designed. “As soon as we can get the pump properly fixed and the sewer station fixed, and then we’re going to start digging to investigate the leaks,” Mr. Wesley said about the work that has delayed the completion of the project once again.

In a letter to Chief Moonias on Nov. 6, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the community’s technical team is working to have water running by Nov. 12, although the boil water advisory will still be in effect, and his department “agrees to fund any remaining work on key components of the system so that it can be operationalized and start serving the community.” Mr. Miller said if the 14-day performance testing proceeds as scheduled and the test results are good, “that clean drinking water should be available in your community by December 11, 2020.”

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Sample bottles of Neskantaga water are packed for transport to be tested.

Mr. Miller also agreed to work with Neskantaga to investigate the “business practices of contractors, engineering companies” hired to build the new water treatment plant.

Chief Moonias says water has to be available from the taps on a 24-hour basis before he’ll allow community members to return. When asked if he thinks the boil water advisory will be lifted in December, he laughs.

“We’ve been hearing that for 25 years,” he said. “We’ll do a quick fix this way, we’ll do a quick fix that way.”

Peter Moonias, the former chief, says their water crisis won’t end in the next couple of months.

“We have to change the sewage lines, we have to change the water lines,” he said. “If we continuously use the same system, you’re going to see us back here again. Maybe this winter, this summer for sure, and many more times.”

In 2017, Indigenous Services Canada announced $8.8-million to construct a new water treatment plant in Neskantaga. The federal department has since dedicated another $7.6-million to “cover costs of changing construction contractors and repairs required to the distribution system and to the wastewater collection system" says Mr. Miller’s press secretary, Adrienne Vaupshas.

Mr. Wesley says Indigenous Services only recently approved additional funding to investigate the poor flow rates at the sewage lift stations. Plans for the new water treatment plant project didn’t initially include the sewage station system.

“We’ve been able to do some adjustments to the lift station, to keep it operating from a preventive maintenance point, but as years have gone by and demand has increased, we’ve had a more difficult time in keeping up,” Mr. Wesley says.

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A photo board collects images of the water plant's construction in the early 1990s. In one picture, a red circle highlights a crack in the main water line that band councillor Gary Quisses says was buried without being replaced.

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Wayne Moonias fills jugs with water from Attawapiskat Lake to be used in flushing toilets, bathing and other necessities. Mr. Moonias's arthritic hands make the task uncomfortable, especially as the lake freezes.

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The bathtub of Lawrence Sakanee, another of the 24 who stayed behind, is full of jugs of water for the toilet and his sanitary needs. His partner, Jennifer, is with the evacuees in Thunder Bay.

In the 2015 federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to end all 105 long-term boil water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years and has since announced more than $2.5-billion over three budgets to help them do so.

The Prime Minister said recently that while around 90 long-term advisories have been lifted to date, the pandemic and travel restrictions have led to delays in resolving the approximately 60 remaining advisories. He wouldn’t commit to meeting the extended target date of March, 2021, for ending all boil water orders.

Indigenous Services Canada Minister Mr. Miller said they “continue to work aggressively to meet the March, 2021, goal” of eliminating all long-term boil water advisories in First Nations, noting that eight long-term boil water advisories have been lifted since March.

Mr. Miller previously told The Globe and Mail he believes mistakes were made when his government made the $1.8-billion investment in on-reserve water and wastewater systems, including that they “didn’t appreciate the scope of what we needed to actually cover.” He says his department is now trying to reassure First Nations they will continue to work with them “past any sort of date that has been fixed to lift their particular water advisories.”

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario says it’s unacceptable for the Prime Minister to back down on his promise to end boil water orders now, especially during a global pandemic when access to water is so important and difficult in some communities.

Chief Fiddler said there are 16 communities in Nishnawbe Aski Nation under boil water advisories – 10 of them long-term, including Neskantaga.

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Neskantaga evacuees arrive at the hotel in Thunder Bay on Oct. 21.

In the meantime, families are adjusting to life in a hotel in Thunder Bay, grappling with the frustration and uncertainty accumulated in almost 26 years of living without safe, clean drinking tap water.

Neskantaga Education Authority has set up a classroom in one of the hotel boardrooms and Matawa Health Services has kids' activities set up in another room. The large banquet room with the children’s posters on display is where evacuees eat their meals. Red Cross volunteers staff a table in the hallway, interacting with the children who need to run off some steam and providing essential supplies to families.

It’s the second evacuation in just more than a year for the community. Last September, a broken water pump left little to no water pressure in homes, forcing them to shut down the water supply once again.

Both times, Jennifer Sakanee has evacuated with her teenage son Nodin and grandson Brayden, who turned six recently. Stuck in Thunder Bay, she couldn’t hold the birthday party she had planned for him.

Her partner, Lawrence Sakanee, is one of the 24 members who stayed behind to keep things going and look after infrastructure in Neskantaga.

Ms. Sakanee says having access to clean, safe water means not having to wait until the morning to use the washroom because the water had been shut off for the night. Being in Thunder Bay reminds them of the basic human right they’ve lived without for so long.

“When you get up in the middle of the night [here], you’re able to use the water for your personal stuff,” she says.

Like others in the community, she’s frustrated and questions if they will ever have what’s been promised to them for the past 25 years.

Late last week from in the banquet room where the evacuees eat their meals, Chief Moonias had to tell his community little progress had been made on their current water crisis and it would be weeks before the water system was fixed, casting doubt on Mr. Miller’s timelines. He said a decision would have to be made whether to wait it out in Thunder Bay or return home to a boil water advisory and the risk that the water supply will be shut down again.

“Is it ever going to happen?" asks Ms. Sakanee, echoing a common concern. "Is it ever going to be done?”

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