Skip to main content

Chief of Neskantaga First Nation Chris Moonias prepares to answer media questions.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

The last time I saw Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias was during a visit to his community, 430 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. I had just toured Neskantaga’s broken-down water filtration plant, which was in need of a new 600-pound pump. Engineers and work crews were busy all along the shores of Attawapiskat Lake, installing the pump in an effort to resolve the longest boil-water advisory of any reserve in Canada. Almost the entire community, meanwhile, had been evacuated to Thunder Bay. A few kind souls stayed behind to look after the dogs.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and I joined Mr. Moonias in his office after that tour. He had made the difficult decision to evacuate, and he was struggling to get the federal bureaucrats to give him any financial or humane support. He shared a particularly disgusting call with one high-ranking civil servant, who told him to “boil your water for one minute” and then take a shower.

“How do you take a shower in boiling water?” Mr. Moonias asked us.

That was a year ago. Today, that boil-water advisory is still in place, now 25 years old. When I spoke to Mr. Moonias again, on Wednesday, he was at Thunder Bay’s Victoria Inn, where he and 270 people from Neskantaga are living, after an oily sheen was found in the reservoir water that prompted the taps to be turned off in October. He told me that little has changed. In fact, that massive replaced pump looks to be the genesis of the latest problem for their water.

“It barely ran for a year, almost to the day,” he said.

Canada knows this story. You have heard it countless times before. We live in a wealthy country, yet many First Nations people do not have access to clean water; they’re still waiting for that apparent luxury.

On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller made an unsurprising announcement: The Liberals will not live up to their 2015 campaign promise of providing clean water to all by March, 2021. Mr. Miller spoke of his government’s record – 97 boil-water advisories had been lifted, with only 41 more to go. Canada pledged $1.5-billion to expedite the work.

But Mr. Miller’s admission did nothing for Mr. Moonias. “They are using COVID, the pandemic, as the reason why they can’t keep their commitment to the boil-water advisory,” he said. “But that is expected of the government. It is not because of where we are. It is that there is no will.”

The day before Mr. Miller spoke, a nine-year-old named Bedahbun Moonias was interviewed by the CBC. “We are not animals, we are not ghosts,” she said. “We are people just like you.”

That’s what it’s come to: Our children are begging in front of TV cameras, after generations of Canadians have failed to get it right.

The lion’s share of the First Nations in Canada that don’t have long-term access to clean water are in Ontario – 34 of them, to be precise. These are nations of families, with modest houses with toilets, tubs and showers that are mostly unusable, full of people trying to get by and stay safe amid a global pandemic.

Non-Indigenous people in Canada are often shocked that this has been allowed to happen in their country. They want to do something, anything, to help. But they can’t seem to wrap their heads around the broader history of Indigenous erasure and how Canada has failed to live up to its treaty obligations. As a result, First Nations are treated like we live in another Canada – one with a different set of rights.

When Mr. Miller spoke on Wednesday, he personally took responsibility for failing to meet the boil-water promise. But that is unfair. It is not just on him – it is on the entire country. By declining to come together and push for solutions that meet the scale of the crisis, Canadians have effectively and collectively dismissed this problem.

Ontario is responsible, too. The province has consistently failed to honour its obligations around Treaty 9, which governs a huge swath of Northern Ontario. “Yet Ontario wants to develop the North,” said Sol Mamakwa, the Ontario NDP MPP whose Kiiwetinoong riding has more than a dozen communities with long-term boil-water advisories. “If you want us to work with you, Ontario, honour Treaty 9.”

Chief Moonias hasn’t lost hope for his people, and after all this time – a quarter-century – he hasn’t given up on Canada. “I believe it can be done, if we work together, we can get the boil-water advisory lifted.”

Canadians need to find that hope, too.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.