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The Ontario government declared a state of emergency last night at a remote native reserve plagued with contaminated drinking water, paving the way for the removal of as many as 1,100 residents.

The government will charter planes to airlift residents of the Kashechewan Reserve in need of medical attention to Timmins, Cochrane and other neighbouring communities. Kashechewan is a fly-in community about 450 kilometres north of Timmins, on the coast of James Bay.

The evacuation will begin "as soon as we can physically do it" and could start as early as today, Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay told reporters. As many as 60 per cent of the reserve's 1,900 Cree residents require medical attention, he added.

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The evacuation order, which followed a meeting between Mr. Ramsay, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and native leaders, marked a dramatic about-face from the government's earlier position.

Mr. McGuinty told reporters yesterday morning that conditions on the reserve are "nothing less than deplorable."

But he said it is up to the federal government to deal with the crisis because it has responsibility for native matters.

Mr. Ramsay, who is also responsible for aboriginal affairs in the province, said he was spurred into action after clearing up a "jurisdictional misunderstanding" with the federal government.

According to a copy of a 1992 Emergency Preparedness Agreement signed by Ottawa and Ontario, the province is responsible for providing emergency assistance when requested by the Department of Indian Affairs or a first-nations community.

The federal government is then responsible for costs incurred by the province.

Federal Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott described the terms of the agreement in a phone conversation yesterday, Mr. Ramsay said. "A call over the noon hour from Mr. Scott pointed me in the right direction."

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Stan Louttit, grand chief for the Mushkegowuk Council, who is responsible for the Kashechewan Reserve, told reporters the province should have acted years ago. "Why did it have to come to this," he said. "We're residents of Ontario."

The reserve has been under a boil-water advisory for two years. But the plight of the community became much worse two weeks ago when deadly E. coli bacteria were found in drinking water the colour of ginger-ale. The community's school was closed last week because teachers couldn't assure the safety of students.

The community's dirty water problem is blamed on the location of the treatment plant's intake pipe, which is 135 metres downstream from a sewage lagoon. As a result, sewage goes directly into the water-filtration system.

New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson accused Queen's Park of ignoring warnings of another Walkerton, Ont., tragedy, where seven people died and another 2,300 were made ill in 2000 after drinking water contaminated with E. coli.

Kashechewan, a Cree word for flowing water, is by no means alone when it comes to having undrinkable tap water. Murray Trusler, a doctor who visited the reserve last week, told reporters there are 100 native communities in Canada, including 51 in Ontario, that have to boil their drinking water.

"The federal government knows these communities are boiling their water," he said. "Why don't they fix their water supply?"

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An inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy also highlighted problems with the water on many first-nations reserves, describing it as some of the poorest quality in the province. The inquiry's report notes that federal standards governing water are less stringent than provincial standards. It recommends that the standards for reserves be no lower than elsewhere in the province.

Dr. Trusler said many children he saw at the Kashechewan Reserve are infected with scabies, a nasty parasite, and impetigo, a bacterial skin infection. He said the only water available for bathing contains high levels of chlorine, which irritates the skin.

Ottawa has responded to the crisis by flying in bottled water. A spokesman for Mr. Scott said Ottawa will also cover the costs of evacuating the reserve.

Down the road, a bigger issue confronting the community is whether it should be relocated permanently. Mr. Louttit said the reserve must be moved because it is located on a flood plain.

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