The chief of the First Nation that’s been under the longest boil-water advisory in Canada says he had to start evacuating vulnerable community members after more troubles at the water-treatment plant in Neskantaga caused a shutdown of the water supply this week.
Close to 200 elders, children and chronically sick people were flown to Thunder Bay on chartered flights this week and will stay in hotels, where they will have access to clean and safe drinking water.
It’s the second evacuation in just more than a year related to the community’s unresolved water crisis. Around 200 people were evacuated to Thunder Bay last September for about two weeks when a broken water pump left little to no water pressure in homes.
The current water crisis has also led to the shutdown of the community’s school and nursing station.
Chief Chris Moonias said Neskantaga is in another state of emergency because of leaks in the water-distribution system, which had forced a nightly shutdown of the water supply in order to preserve levels for daytime use since Oct. 8. On Monday, the entire water supply was shut off after an oily, sheen-like substance was found in water reservoirs.
Mr. Moonias immediately called on Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to help the community with the evacuation and to fulfill the federal government’s commitment to bring the community safe drinking water. Neskantaga has been under a boil-water advisory for about 25 years.
In an updated statement provided to The Globe and Mail late Wednesday, spokeswoman Adrienne Vaupshas said the department “will be providing funding to cover the costs of this evacuation.”
Technicians with Matawa First Nations Management travelled to the fly-in community of about 460 members, 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, on Monday night to collect water samples for testing. Results are expected back on Thursday. Matawa provides support to a group of nine communities in the region.
Aaron Wesley, a utilities manager for Matawa, says they’ve detected slow leaks in the distribution system since November, 2018, but negotiations with Indigenous Services Canada to proceed with repairs was only recently approved by the department.
Indigenous Services first announced the $8.8-million upgrade project to Neskantaga’s water-treatment plant in 2017 and it was originally supposed to be completed and operable by 2018. Ms. Vaupshas said an extra $4-million has been provided to complete the upgrade project and “additional funding will be provided for immediate repairs as necessary” to the distribution system.
Mr. Miller said on Twitter that “Indigenous Services is currently funding $16.4-million for a new water-treatment plant and upgrades to the water-distribution system and wastewater-collection system" in Neskantaga.
Mr. Wesley says a contractor is flying to Neskantaga to assess what is needed to complete the repairs and is hopeful it can be done in two to three weeks.
Councillor Allan Moonias is among those who left Neskantaga with his family on Wednesday morning. He said it takes 15 to 20 litres of water to flush the toilet after it’s used and there are 10 people in his household. His older children instead waited until they got to Thunder Bay to use the washroom.
“They’re rushing to go to the washroom now,” he told The Globe moments after they arrived at the hotel.
Mr. Moonias said community members are having a hard time deciding whether to leave Neskantaga because of the greater risk of COVID-19 outside the remote First Nation.
Miranda Quisses evacuated with her five children, between the ages of 2 and 11, on Wednesday, and said it was "sad that is has come to this.” She said she worries about COVID-19, but managing the logistics of things such as bathing her children is hard to do without clean, safe water back home.
Indigenous Services said the department is concerned over the shutdown of the water-distribution system and school, and “will work with Ontario to ensure seamless access to health services including mental health and that appropriate public-health precautions are taken throughout the evacuation process in order to safeguard evacuees from the risk of COVID-19 contagion.”
During a livestream of a Nishnawbe Aski Nation chiefs meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Moonias reminded Mr. Miller of the string of delays that they’ve faced to get the upgrades to the water plant completed.
Mr. Moonias said when then-Indigenous services minister Carolyn Bennett visited the community in April, 2016, she spoke with his now 23-year-old daughter, who has lived her entire life under a boil-water advisory.
“And [she] promised her, ‘you’ll have clean drinking water in spring of 2018.’ To date, we have nothing,” a frustrated and emotional Mr. Moonias told Mr. Miller during the livestream.
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