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Addison Moonias, five, of Neskantaga First Nation is swabbed for COVID-19 before she and her family head home for the holidays after nearly two months of being evacuated to Thunder Bay, Ontario, due to a water crisis.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

After two months living in a Thunder Bay hotel, more than 200 evacuees from Neskantaga were returning home on the weekend to cleaner water flowing from their taps, though the 25-year-old boil-water advisory on the First Nation won’t be lifted yet.

Community members were emotional as they waited to be tested and screened for COVID-19 before heading to the airport to make the journey back to Neskantaga, about 430 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

Geraldine Yellowhead, a mother and grandmother, said she will likely cry once she arrives.

“I didn’t want to spend Christmas in a small hotel room,” she said. “It’s lonely being here, even though we have our families here, but home is where the heart is.”

Arrangements to return were made after successful 14-day performance tests on the upgraded water-treatment plant, which was repaired after high levels of hydrocarbons were found in the water in October and led to the latest evacuation.

“The water is flowing, producing a much better water. It’s much clearer than when we evacuated,” Chief Chris Moonias said.

However, the community will remain under a boil-water advisory for now, Mr. Moonias said.

He said the report received from the community’s technical-services team indicates that chlorine residuals in the distribution system are consistently inadequate. He added that the plant’s technical and operational deficiencies need to be addressed before the water is safe to drink without boiling it first.

He said the progress has been positive and he is hopeful that they are on their way to lifting the water advisory that has been in place for a quarter of a century, the longest in Canada.

Left behind in Neskantaga and exiled in Thunder Bay, a nation still waits for clean water at home

Mr. Moonias, who returned to Neskantaga on Sunday to help get things ready, said he wanted to make sure community members could shower and do their laundry safely, even if they can’t yet drink the water from the taps.

The $16-million water-plant upgrade project, which was announced by Ottawa in 2017, has been plagued by a string of delays. In 2019, the community fired the contractors for falling behind, and later that year, it evacuated after a broken pump left little to no water pressure in homes. This fall, it was discovered that hydrocarbons had leaked into the reservoir. The water supply was shut down once again, forcing the community to evacuate a second time in just over a year.

Neskantaga has been without adequate water and wastewater infrastructure for decades while governments have failed to appropriately address the needs of the community.

Neskantaga First Nation detects 'high levels’ of hydrocarbons in drinking water

In the spring, Neskantaga joined a class-action lawsuit filed by Curve Lake First Nation in October, 2019, against the Attorney-General of Canada for the government’s role in what they say is “negligence in creating and failing to remedy conditions of inadequate access to potable water.” They also allege a “breach of fiduciary duties” and a violation of their Charter rights by “denying adequate access to potable water.” The $2-billion-plus claim highlights the federal government’s failings since the 1990s when the community first established a need for water infrastructure.

Janelle Sakanee evacuated with her daughters Mya, 5, and Twila, 3, while her partner Marcus Moonias, the community’s water-plant operator, stayed behind.

She said she’s not happy that the boil-water advisory remains in place but is supportive of her partner’s work during the crisis.

“I’ll just take it one day at a time,” Ms. Sakanee said.

Chief Moonias said there’s no timeline for the work that needs to be completed to finally lift the boil-water advisory, but he was confident in continuing negotiations with Indigenous Services Canada and its commitment to end the crisis.

In their recent economic statement, the federal Liberals pledged $1.5-billion to speed up the work needed for First Nations to lift all long-term water advisories. The announcement came after the government acknowledged it would not meet its target of March, 2021, to do that.

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