For a brief, terrifying moment inside the lobby of the Airlane Hotel & Conference Centre on Tuesday afternoon, Kelsey Moonias’s son was missing.
She screamed Ashton’s name as she darted out to the parking lot, carrying baby Alissa on her back in a tikinagan. The family had arrived in Thunder Bay just one day earlier, after its small, remote community, Neskantaga First Nation, was evacuated as the result of a water crisis.
Her four-year-old son does not know the city, or the dangers of the busy roads that surround the hotel. When she found him playing with friends, oblivious to her panic, she hugged him close.
“I just want to go home,” Ms. Moonias said, wiping tears. “We were forced to come out here because of the water. It’s not good for us. Back home, it’s not safe because there’s no water, and even out here it’s not safe because he wanders. Even if we lock the door, he’ll still escape.”
Since Sunday, more than 200 people have been evacuated from Neskantaga, situated about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, since and are now spread out in four hotels across the city. Only 20 or so people remained behind.
The evacuation was called by Chief Chris Moonias after the breakdown of electric pumps left some of his community’s homes with just trickles of unchlorinated water – and others with no water at all.
On Tuesday evening, the community received word that a temporary replacement pump had been flown in and installed.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who attended a project team meeting in the community on Tuesday along with Mr. Moonias, said the system is now being flushed. The next step will be testing.
“They’ve been under the boil-water advisory for 25 years … you can’t blame them for wanting to see that those extra steps be taken before they have any confidence in their system and that they can come back to their community,” he said.
He said that, based on the testing protocols that must be followed, he expects the earliest the community members would be able to go back would be Saturday.
Because the federal Indigenous Services department did not consider there to be any immediate health and safety risks, the evacuation was not sanctioned. The department had suggested residents take sponge baths with boiled water for hygiene until a replacement pump could be fitted.
For the community, the suggestion was insulting. Some residents have reported rashes and sores from bathing in the water.
Because it was a “self-evacuation,” the community is now faced with financial uncertainty about the costs.
“It’s probably going to cost half-a-million dollars,” Allan Moonias, a councillor for Neskantaga First Nation, said at the Airlane Hotel on Tuesday.
In an e-mail statement on Tuesday, Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan said that “we respect Chief Moonias’s decision to evacuate his community and are focused on ensuring that community members … have the health and wellness supports they need.”
“In regard to the costs of the evacuation, we will work to minimize any financial impacts that result from the self-evacuation,” he said.
Indigenous Services Canada also stressed that a new water treatment system is supposed to be ready next month – but the community is skeptical.
Mr. Fiddler said the focus now has to be on meeting that target.
“I think the community has paid a heavy price already the last 25 years with the water situation,” he said. “We can’t wait any longer to get this thing done.”
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