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Bottled water is stored in a building once used as a gym on Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on February 25, 2021. The community has been under a boil-water advisory for 23 years.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Shamattawa First Nation faced a nightmare situation: a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in an isolated community with a housing crisis and no clean water.

The current long-term drinking-water advisory has been in place for more than 14 months, and the community in Manitoba’s North has experienced these advisories on and off for many years.

It has made combatting a pandemic, when the importance of clean water is paramount for handwashing and sanitizing, that much more difficult for Shamattawa and dozens of other First Nations.

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Shamattawa is among 39 communities in four provinces that have 57 long-term drinking-water advisories as of Jan. 26 (some have more than one). A Globe analysis shows that two communities in Ontario have been on long-term water advisories for more than 20 years, including Neskantaga, which has twice been evacuated because of the water crisis. Shoal Lake 40, which straddles the Ontario-Manitoba border, is the other one.

Another 10 First Nations communities in Ontario, two in British Columbia and one in Saskatchewan have been without clean water for more than a decade.

LONG-TERM DRINKING-WATER

ADVISORIES IN FIRST NATIONS

Years since the date advisory was set,

as of Jan. 26, 2021

5

10

15

20 years

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Tataskweyak

2.8 years

Shamattawa

1.2 years

Alberta

Que.

Sask.

Man.

Neskantaga

25.1 years

Semiahmoo

14.4 years

Ont.

Xeni Gwet'in

18.3 years

Star Blanket

13.1 years

Shoal Lake No. 40

23 years

Mississaugas

of Scugog Island

11.3 years

TOTAL ADVISORIES

BY PROVINCE

4

43

7

3

B.C.

Sask.

Man.

Ont.

Note: Advisories in Ontario on the map appear to be fewer than total due to overlapping locations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

LONG-TERM DRINKING-WATER ADVISORIES

IN FIRST NATIONS

Years since the date advisory was set, as of Jan. 26, 2021

5

10

15

20 years

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Tataskweyak

2.8 years

Shamattawa

1.2 years

Alberta

Que.

Sask.

Man.

Neskantaga

25.1 years

Semiahmoo

14.4 years

Ont.

Xeni Gwet'in

18.3 years

Star Blanket

13.1 years

Shoal Lake No. 40

23 years

Mississaugas

of Scugog Island

11.3 years

TOTAL ADVISORIES BY PROVINCE

4

43

7

3

B.C.

Sask.

Man.

Ont.

Note: Advisories in Ontario on the map appear to be fewer than total due to overlapping locations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

LONG-TERM DRINKING-WATER ADVISORIES

IN FIRST NATIONS

Years since the date advisory was set, as of Jan. 26, 2021

5

10

15

20 years

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Tataskweyak

2.8 years

Shamattawa

1.2 years

N.L.

Alberta

Sask.

Que.

Man.

Neskantaga

25.1 years

Semiahmoo

14.4 years

PEI

N.B.

N.S.

Ont.

Xeni Gwet'in

18.3 years

Star Blanket

13.1 years

Shoal Lake No. 40

23 years

Mississaugas

of Scugog Island

11.3 years

TOTAL ADVISORIES BY PROVINCE

7

4

43

3

B.C.

Sask.

Man.

Ont.

Note: Advisories in Ontario on the map appear to be fewer than total due to overlapping locations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

LONG-TERM DRINKING-WATER ADVISORIES

IN FIRST NATIONS

Years since the date advisory was set, as of Jan. 26, 2021

5

10

15

20 years

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Tataskweyak

2.8 years

Shamattawa

1.2 years

N.L.

Alberta

Sask.

Que.

Man.

Neskantaga

25.1 years

Semiahmoo

14.4 years

PEI

N.B.

N.S.

Ont.

Xeni Gwet'in

18.3 years

Star Blanket

13.1 years

Shoal Lake No. 40

23 years

Mississaugas

of Scugog Island

11.3 years

TOTAL ADVISORIES BY PROVINCE

7

4

43

3

B.C.

Sask.

Man.

Ont.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

Note: Advisories in Ontario on the map appear to be fewer than total due to overlapping locations.

LONG-TERM DRINKING-WATER ADVISORIES

IN FIRST NATIONS

Years since the date advisory was set, as of Jan. 26, 2021

5

10

15

20 years

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Tataskweyak

2.8 years

Shamattawa

1.2 years

Xeni Gwet'in

18.3 years

N.L.

Alberta

Sask.

Man.

Semiahmoo

14.4 years

Que.

Neskantaga

25.1 years

PEI

N.B.

N.S.

Ont.

Star Blanket

13.1 years

Shoal Lake No. 40

23 years

Mississaugas

of Scugog Island

11.3 years

TOTAL ADVISORIES BY PROVINCE

7

4

43

3

B.C.

Sask.

Man.

Ont.

Note: Advisories in Ontario on the map appear to be fewer than total due to overlapping locations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

On Thursday, Auditor-General Karen Hogan found that the federal government has not provided adequate support to First Nations to access safe drinking water. In the audit tabled in Parliament, she said drinking-water advisories remain a constant for many communities, noting that almost half of the existing advisories have been in place for more than a decade.

“I am very concerned and honestly disheartened that this long-standing issue is still not resolved,” she said.

In Shamattawa, Chief Eric Redhead said the community contemplated bringing in bottled water but the cost was far too high.

“Having access to clean drinking water, clean water to bathe is essential,” the Chief said in an interview. “When you don’t have access to that, especially during a pandemic, it compounds the issue. It makes it a whole lot more difficult to deal with.”

At the peak of the December outbreak, there were 450 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Through the efforts of community leadership, members of the First Nation and the military, Shamattawa turned around the situation on the ground. Their case count now sits at zero; there were no deaths.

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While that crisis is under control, Chief Redhead said water in his community remains an urgent issue. The majority of the community is hooked up to a line that takes water into homes where it needs to be boiled. The system is not designed to distribute water on a massive scale and it breaks down, he said.

Wayne Moonias fills water jugs from Attawapisakt Lake in Neskantaga in late 2020.

A bathtub in Neskantaga is filled with water jugs used to flush the toilet, sponge bath, brush his teeth, and do dishes.

Photos by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

During the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate all long-term advisories on reserves by 2021 and his government later set its target for March of this year. But in December, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced that the target was out of reach. His department is not providing a new timeline for when advisories will be lifted and says the pandemic has added to challenges with infrastructure projects.

In an interview, Mr. Miller said the passage of the March deadline is his failure to bear, adding that Ottawa will support First Nations and has ensured “there is financial backing to that promise.”

Mr. Miller pointed to $1.5-billion in funding announced in November’s economic statement. He said it’s aimed at expediting the lifting of long-term water advisories, adding that every community has a plan in place for lifting advisories and many are getting close to being able to do so.

Long-term advisories are those that have been in place for more than a year. They are issued by First Nations when tests show that their water is not safe to drink. Lifting an advisory is a decision taken by communities themselves, and Ottawa says assisting communities to reach the point where they can lift them is a complex process. Federal officials say they work with communities to address health and safety issues and ensure water-treatment facilities are properly operated and maintained.

Over the years, the federal government has been criticized by opposition MPs about its level of commitment to its campaign promise.

When the additional $1.5-billion was announced, Ontario New Democratic MP Charlie Angus pointed to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer published in December, 2017, and said it was clear that the Liberals have long been on track to miss their target for lifting all advisories. The PBO said at the time that government spending fell short of what would be required to meet Mr. Trudeau’s promise, only covering between 54 per cent and 70 per cent of total investments.

Since the Trudeau Liberals were first elected in 2015, 99 long-term water advisories have been lifted in First Nations. Mr. Miller said the pandemic has led to the loss of a full construction season. He noted that communities have worked hard to fix the problems during waves of COVID-19.

Kris Mathews, superintendent of the water treatment plant project at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, walks through the nearly finished facility on February 25, 2021.

Empty water containers at Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

Photos by Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

The pandemic has had a large impact on First Nations communities. As of Wednesday, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said there have been 20,445 positive cases on reserves, with 1,415 active cases, 938 hospital admissions and 222 deaths. In Manitoba, Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Now, there is fear about a potential third wave as variants spread. Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health for ISC, said variants have not been confirmed in First Nations but that it is a “matter of time.”

Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal said the government’s success on its outstanding water pledge will be measured in outcomes. First Nations across the country are raising concerns that water infrastructure is going without proper maintenance and it is multiplying the problem, he added.

“Reconciliation is not about making promises to Indigenous peoples that you can’t keep to win votes at election time,” Mr. Vidal said.

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Failure to resolve long-term water advisories in reserves stretches back decades. The former Conservative government led by Stephen Harper faced criticism from Indigenous leaders for failing to make appropriate investments to lift long-term water advisories on First Nations.

Niki Ashton, whose Manitoba riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski includes 40 First Nations including Shamattawa, said the current government’s failure to meet its promise is emblematic of systemic racism.

“We’ve seen the government of Canada move mountains during this [COVID-19] crisis,” Ms. Ashton said. “We know one of the number-one ways to keep people safe from COVID is access to clean water and enough water. To me, there’s simply no excuse.”

Earlier this month, Ms. Ashton also wrote to Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Miller and UN special rapporteurs on the need to deliver clean drinking water to First Nations. Among her concerns, Ms. Ashton highlighted that Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba is now part of a certified class-action lawsuit against the Attorney-General of Canada for failing to address prolonged drinking-water advisories on First Nations.

Michael Rosenberg, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, one of the law firms serving as counsel in the class action, said that Tataskweyak needs more than words from the federal government. ISC’s guidelines do not test for the toxins identified in the community’s source water, he added, noting that the community needs infrastructure to draw water from a clean source and to distribute it within the community.

“Like so many First Nations across the country, it has a plan in place to build that infrastructure,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “But it needs Ottawa to act. The members of Tataskweyak Cree Nation have a basic human right to clean water, and they shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”

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Workers install a pipe at Tataskweyak Cree Nation’s water treatment plant in the fall of 2018. Tataskweyak has been under a boil water advisory since May, 2017.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation, both in Ontario, are also taking part in a class action, which says Canada breached its obligations.

Back in Shamattawa, a fly-in community of around 1,000 people, Chief Redhead said he is hopeful that the community may be able to lift its boil-water advisory in a matter of weeks. The First Nation is getting a huge upgrade to its water-treatment plant, he said.

For now, community members are advised to bring water to a roaring boil for two minutes to ensure that it’s safe to drink.

As they anxiously await the promise of clean water, Chief Redhead said all of the parents in the community are refusing to take chances and don’t trust that boiling water is safe enough to drink. They purchase bottled water from the northern store, despite its costs, for an extra level of assurance, he said.

“We should be able to turn the tap and be able to drink water. It is 2021.”

Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been under a drinking-water advisory since 1997. The community’s new water treatment plant, due to come online in the summer, will finally provide safe water. The Trudeau government promised to eliminate all long-term advisories on reserves by March, but dozens still lack access to safe drinking water. The Globe and Mail

First Nations communities with water advisories

White Bear • Little Saskatchewan • Sandy Lake

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Muskrat Dam Lake • Northwest Angle No. 33

Gull Bay (Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek)

Shoal Lake No. 40 • Tataskweyak • Nibinamik

Neskantaga • Anishinabe of Wauzhushk Onigum

Ministikwan Lake • Peepeekisis • Wet’suwet’en

Semiahmoo • Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte

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Wabaseemoong • Mishkeegogamang

Sachigo Lake • Washagamis Bay • Eabametoong

Oneida of the Thames • Bearskin Lake

Ojibway Nation of Saugeen • Xeni Gwet’in

Peter Ballantyne • North Spirit Lake

Shamattawa • Mississaugas of Scugog Island

Deer Lake • Chippewas of Nawash • Sapotaweyak

Wahta • Anishinaabeg of Naongashiing

Chippewas of Georgina Island • Little Pine

Wawakapewin • Star Blanket • Marten Falls


With research from Murat Yukselir

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