Seven times a month, a Health Canada official scooped up a sample of water from Kashechewan that was promptly sent down to a North Bay laboratory for testing.
The results that came back on Oct. 14 -- two days after another sample was sent for testing -- were worrisome: The desolate, northern Ontario community tested positive for Escherichia coli, a germ that causes severe cramps and diarrhea.
By 11:45 a.m. that day, the chief counsel of the community 400 kilometres north of Timmins on the shores of James Bay was notified of the results, according to Paul Duchesne, Health Canada spokesman.
"There were infections of the skin. It was a medical emergency," Wally Turner, life safety officer for Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Kashechewan, said in an interview yesterday. "We're still evacuating because of it."
It may not have been a total surprise: brownish, ginger-ale-coloured water has been spewing from the taps in the community of fewer than 2,000 people for some time. It had been under a boil-water advisory for two years.
A report done in 2003 by the Ontario Clean Water Agency called Kashechewan a "Walkerton-in-waiting," referring to the tragedy five years ago in which seven people died and another 2,300 became ill after drinking water laced with E. coli in Walkerton, Ont.
And an Indian Affairs study in 2001 found that nearly one-third of the 740 water systems tested in native communities posed a potential high risk of poor water quality. Only one-quarter were considered to be in the low- or no-risk category.
Currently, 85 native communities across Canada are under boil-water advisories, Health Canada says.
"Cloudiness in the water can potentially mask bacteria," Mr. Duchesne said. "When you see that cloudiness, you want to keep boiling the water."
Like many reserves, a water-plant operator trained by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada was testing the water daily in Kashechewan, Mr. Duchesne said. That's in addition to the seven tests a month done by an environmental health officer of Health Canada.
"The situation at the water-treatment plant has been stabilized and work continues to remove the boil-water advisory," said Jirina Vlk, Health Canada spokeswoman. "Our most recent reported tests of Oct. 27, 2005 showed no E. coli."
According to Campbell Morrison, press secretary to Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott, a group called Northern Waterworks has been dispatched to the community to "help out on the immediate issue and provide assistance to the first nation.
"They're there on site and working with the facility and doing the testing, along with the first nation."
As part of a water-management strategy, about $1.6-billion has been set aside, part of it to help train certified water experts so they are available to all native communities, he said.
"We don't think all first nations have certified water experts," Mr. Morrison said. "Part of that is to train people to run all these water facilities and for the training and certification of operators."
Native communities in Ontario are among 85 across the country that have been advised to boil their water. Prime Minister Paul Martin says he intends to address the problems.
FIRST NATION COMMUNITIES
2. Bearskin Lake
3. Cat Lake
4. Deer Lake
5. Eabametoong First Nation
6. Eagle Lake
7. Fort Severn
10. Lac Seul
11. Lac Seul
12. Mishkeegoga Mang
13. Muskrat Dam Lake
14. Neskantaga First Nation
15. North Caribou Lake
16. North Spirit Lake
18. Sandy Lake
19. Slate Falls Nation
20. Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation
23. Curve Lake
24. Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte
25. Moose Deer Point
26. Wasauksing First Nation
27. Anishnabe of Wauzhushk Oniguum
28. Constance Lake
29. Couchiching First Nation
30. Nicickouseme Necaning
32. North West Angle No. 33
33. North West Angle No. 37
34. Ochiichagwa'b Abigo'ining First Nation
35. Ojibways of Onegaming
36. Pic Mobert
37. Shoal Lake No. 40
SOURCE: CHIEFS OF ONTARIO, HEALTH CANADA